For the last two months, Doklam has remained the centrepiece of India’s foreign policy. While India continues to evolve various formulations for starting dialogue, China singularly persists with the demand that India withdraw its forces first. This stalemate is hurting both sides and shows no signs of ending. If anything, the effects of the stalemate are now visible elsewhere. China and India have become hyperactive in wooing their other Himalayan neighbour—Nepal.
The nation shares not one but two such disputed tri-junctions: The Lipulekh pass in western Nepal and the dormant Jhinsang Chull, in its East.
Unlike Jhinsang Chull, the Lipulekh pass has been in use since ancient times for trade and travel between China, India and Nepal. It was formally opened by a 1992 agreement between China and India for pilgrims visiting Mount Kailash and Mansarovar. This pass was in the news recently when the Doklam standoff began: China prevented these pilgrims from using the Nathu La which was opened in 2006.
It is important to note that, in the past years, the Lipulekh has been creating insecurities in Nepal as it is close to the Kalapani area claimed both by India and Nepal. In 2015, the Nepalese Parliament had demanded that China and India drop the mention of Lipulekh from their agreement on bilateral trade signed during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s China visit. At that time, China-India relations were friendly, while the ties between India and Nepal were drifting towards the five-month long blockade. This allowed China to maximise its goodwill in Nepal; it provided essential commodities like oil to the Himalayan nation.
Since then, relations between New Delhi and Beijing have also derailed. This means that Lipulekh can now provide China the added leverage to negatively influence India-Nepal ties.
As in the case of Bhutan, the Chinese have been working hard to wean away Nepal from its special equation with India. As part of expanding its influence in Nepal, China has not only invested in infrastructure but also cultivated ties with the Nepalese civil society and its leadership. Opposition leader and former Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli, known for his pro-China slant, was recently hosted in Tibet and briefed on China’s position on Doklam.
His former Foreign Minister Mahendra Bahadur Pandey has been saying that the Chinese have assured Nepal that they would review the tri-junction next to Lipulekh, urging India to do the same before this tri-junction becomes ‘another Doklam’. Gopal Khanal, who was Oli’s foreign policy advisor said: “We have to see the Doklam incident as indicative of the tendency of big countries to unnecessarily intervene in the affairs of small countries.” Nepal has always had anti-India constituencies. But now, they are cementing around ex-PM K P Sharma Oli’s loyalists who have been trying to paint India as the aggressor in Doklam.
Similarly, Chinese academics have become far too abrasive in reminding the Nepalese of India’s ‘interference’ flowing from ‘British legacies’. They are proposing that Kathmandu accept China’s offers of expanding connectivity through construction of railways, roads, pipelines and people-to-people contacts. Their refrain of the two China-Nepal treaties having successfully ended the impact of British legacies in their relationship and how China has never interfered in Nepal’s internal affairs or supported Maoists has been sustained with a view to strengthen Nepal’s anti-India constituencies.
As a visible outcome of such sustained Chinese efforts, at a press conference this Monday, Nepal’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Krishna Bahadur Mahara underlined his government’s policy of “equidistance” on the Doklam standoff saying, “We do not support any of our neighbours in this case.” This needs to be read in the backdrop of the fact that thousands of Nepali soldiers serve in the Indian Army; hundreds of Nepali troops had died in the last China-India war—fighting for Indian side.
This means that the shadows of Doklam will hang over the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) foreign ministers meet in Nepal Friday.
To recall, India wants to strengthen BIMSTEC as an alternative to the deadlocked South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation which has failed to hold its summit since 2014. This year, BIMSTEC completes 20 years and India wishes it adopts a Free Trade Agreement to assert its relevance and also the help India bypass Pakistan in building sub-regional cooperation. India has serious reservations to its 2004 framework Free Trade Agreement; Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have been pushing for the entry of China into the group—if not as a member, then as an observer. So, Doklam will remain the big elephant in Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s interactions; her visit to Nepal starts today.
Now, let’s gauge the magnitude of Swaraj’s task. Last week, Chinese deputy chief of mission in Kathmandu briefed his newly appointed Nepalese counterpart and other Nepalese officials in Kathmandu; Chinese officials also briefed Nepalese diplomats in Beijing. Now, Swaraj’s visit will be followed by Chinese Vice-Premier Wang Yang’s visit to Nepal from August 14 to hold similar briefings for Nepal’s top leaders—before Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba begins his first foreign visit to India starting August 23.
In the last two years, Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang has emerged a top-level South Asian expert with multiple visits to Nepal. Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj therefore will be expected to explain India’s stand on Doklam not just to Nepalese leaders but also to all the BIMTEC leaders. Given this growing centrality of Nepal in the Doklam issue, Foreign Secretary Jaishankar Subrahmanyam is expected to visit Nepal as a follow up to Wang Yang’s visit and before Nepal prime minister begins his visit to India.
Professor, School of International Studies, JNU, New Delhi