Nepal is a staging ground for China and India's military dominance of South Asia. So what role can Nepal play as it is stuck between a rock and a hard place?
Can landlocked nations protect their sovereignty from military powers?
For a realist, the answer is obvious, and this is where Nepal’s future hangs in the balance. Lodged between two emerging powers, China and India, Nepal is no match.
After Nepal opted to not partake in the BIMSTEC’s (The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) joint military exercise this September, India expressed its dissatisfaction and termed the move as an embarrassment and inappropriate.
Analysts believe Nepal’s move comes after its tilt towards China since Nepal’s participation in the BIMSTEC was limited to an observer, and then later decided to hold a joint military drill in China immediately after the pull-out. Also, Nepal also doesn’t want to isolate Pakistan at a time when India is making every move to do so.
China, on the other hand, is hell-bent to seize the diminishing scope of India’s influence.
Both India and China are trying to seduce Nepal’s Army through funding. However, China is a step ahead as it has announced it would provide over $21 million to the Nepalese Army for humanitarian and disaster relief equipment.
A declassified CIA document, obtained by Wikileaks, revealed that the CIA feared an occupation of Nepal by its immediate neighbours during the 1962 Sino-India war.
The document speculates that India was premeditating an occupation of the southern parts of Nepal before 1962:
“Nevertheless, we believe that India will pursue a cautious course, lest it jeopardizes its other activities in Nepal. These include the manning of border posts along the Nepalese-Tibetan border and the right to recruit Gurkha troops. There are 29 battalions of Gurkhas totaling about 27, 000 men in the Indian Army. Such rights are dependent upon the King’s pleasure. More important, however, is India’s fear that Mahendra, if pushed too hard, might carry out his threat to seek Communist military support, which would force India to intervene militarily in Nepal. While India could secure the southern lowlands and probably the Kathmandu Valley and other points in Central Nepal, the Chinese—who control two key passes of north Kathmandu—could take over much of northern Nepal and thus greatly increase Indian difficulty in securing its Himalayan frontier.”
India was not only miffed with Nepal during the 1962 Sino-China war for not siding with it, but the southern neighbour also imposed an economic blockade on Nepal during 1989 when Nepal decided to buy arms from China.
The document also reveals that India has always considered Nepal as a part of its security regime and had intentions to annex Nepal since the East India Company left their country.
This argument was given weight when Modi-led India imposed the second blockade on Nepal in 2015 – in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake. Why did India react so harshly? Nepal had gone ahead to pass its new constitution and India didn’t really like with it.
After the constitution was passed, India also criticised Nepal’s human rights situation at the United Nations (UN) with no self-awareness about the hypocrisy contained within its criticism.
Analysts often argue that India is always prying on Nepal’s water resources and that it doesn’t want the Himalayan kingdom to develop because it would mean that India’s demands would no longer be heard or would remain relevant. There’s a famous saying that one can change its friends but not its neighbours, and Nepalis know that all too well.
The fact is that China and India will not attack Nepal militarily at this period.
There are two main reasons. First, both countries are struggling with their internal problems like Kashmir, Naxalites (Maoist rebels), refugee issues, the rise of secessionist groups, terrorism, climate change, economy, Tibet, Xinjiang.
Second, both nations know that occupying Nepal will only invite more trouble. The presence of Nepal’s Gurkha regiment in the Indian army also makes it complicated in the south of the country.
Nepal is already trying to reduce its dependency on China by signing a trade pact with China—which now allows Nepal to access several ports. There’s also talk of connecting Tibet and Kathmandu via railways.
Military power is often seen as an aggressive tool in the modern world.
However, China and India will continue their tussle to seal military dominance in Nepal whether western powers like it or not. On the other hand, it’s only the Nepali leaders who can secure Nepal’s sovereignty in the coming days.
With the diminishing role of the United States in global politics and the chances of China becoming the next superpower, Nepal can only wait and watch how the future unfolds for its neighbours and itself too. In the meantime, it should work on becoming the Brussels of South Asia, engage militarily on an international level, lessen its dependency on both China and India, and improve its economy in a meaningful manner.
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