Nepal and Bhutan, the two Himalayan landlocked countries are in hitches to uphold stable relationships with their two giant neighbors; India has strong presence and dominance in these countries compared to China.
The history of the Indian meddlesome in these countries started after the treaty of 1949 with Bhutan and treaty of 1950 with Nepal. Thereafter these countries have done several treaties and agreements with India, but the people, especially in Nepal have a sensitivity that most of the treaties and agreements were not in favor of them, Nepal was always losing.
China is fully aware of the importance of India for these countries due to its difficult mountainous terrain. However, it is trying to enter in these countries and it is not in a position to completely ignore Indian interloping.
The Himalayas are considered to be great supportive barriers for the security of India and its defense forces asleep comfortably because of strong Himalayan barriers and saves billions of spending for the safekeeping of the northern border.
It is not hidden that as a big brother India always wanted its northern neighbors to be dependent only on it and closeness with China is not allowed them. If these small countries are seen being near to China, India had the policy to crush them to bring in line. It always had a despotic policy in dealing with weak neighbors and underrates them by misusing their leaders to support its interests.
During 2013, India had withdrawn its subsidy on kerosene and cooking gas to Bhutan. Due to a sharp rise in fuel prices, the ruling party defeated in general election, which aimed at apparently punishing then Bhutan prime minister who met his Chinese counterpart in Brazil’s capital Rio de Janeiro and imported 20 buses from China.
More or less, India is applying similar methods also to Nepal. It is constantly trying to punish Nepal for being near to China by signing several agreements and for opening more highways across the Himalayas. During the border blockade of 2015, it used tactics of fuel weapon by cutting its supply to Nepal. Thereafter, K. P. Sharma Oli led government compelled to resign and a new government formed under Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachand’.
Chinese soft diplomacy
Nepal has a diplomatic and friendly relationship with China, connected with highways, and Chinese investment, trade, and tourists are in increasing trend in Nepal. “Arniko Highway” is the first road built by China connecting Nepal with China. The road was built in the 1960s by initiation of then late King Mahendra of Nepal.
China is also interested starting diplomatic relations with Bhutan, but Thimphu discerns that without the approval of India such a move could be disastrous.
As an attempt to gain support in Bhutan, China has recently positioned its normal “soft diplomacy.” The Chinese circus artists, acrobats, and footballers went to Bhutan, and some Bhutanese students received scholarships to study in China. Chinese tourists number in Bhutan are increasing, last year, the figure was 9,399, or 19 percent of the total. The Bhutanese side is also interested in tourism, religion, and culture and agriculture cooperation with China.
Last year, Nepal and China relationship was in high point after 1960’s “Aarniko” highway construction. Nepal signed nine agreements including trade transit agreement with China during the visit of then Nepalese Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli. China agreed to provide its seaport and highways to facilitate Nepal transit trade and also interested to supply petroleum products to it. China is also expanding its railway network near Nepal border by 2020 to enter South Asia through Nepal. However, the stability and long-lasting relationship between Nepal and China depend on the circumstances and the will of leaderships in Nepal.
Nepalese people have a feeling that India, by hook or by crook, is always trying to bring Nepal on the similar track of Bhutan, whether by blocking the border points or by compelling to sign the unequal treaty, agreements. Moreover, the postponement of a visit of Chinese President to Nepal and Nepal’s noninterest to implement agreements done with China supposed to be a product of Indian influences.
It has been tough to Nepal and Bhutan to come out of Indian grip and initiate equal distance relationships with India and China. After the eviction of Nepali speaking population from Bhutan, the remaining single ruling populations are in strong support of India. People in Nepal are divided, the hill population and original Madhesis always oppose the Indian interference; while the Indian political immigrants in Nepal arrived after the treaty of 1950, support it. On the one hand, these immigrants in Nepal are continuously forcing the state to scrape many provisions of citizenship provisions of the constitution to enable them to acquire top political positions and on the other hand their demand for all Madhesh two states are also very chancy from national unity and sovereignty point of view. This is going to be never-ending problems even if all the demands are being fulfilled; new actors and new issues would emerge to destabilize it.
Moreover, majority Nepalese people have also an impression that the Indian intention seems to make it economically weaker. Just for example in economic side, India initiated mega projects like the postal highway, oil pipeline, hydropower, ICPs and railway, which are uncertain and lagging behind Chinese assisted projects like ring road expansion, regional international airports, dry port, northern highways, hydropower and investments in Nepal. India seems to be more interested in supporting petty projects directly financed by its embassy in Nepal.
Not only economically but it is making politically weaker and more dependent Nepal. For example, some contents of recent Nepal-India Joint statement have been a subject of new controversy and criticism in Nepal. Oppositions cite it as treason and damage the nation’s non-aligned and neutral foreign policy; especially point 11 of the joint statement states, “The two Prime Ministers believe their two countries hold similar views on major international issues….”. Regarding this point, they say that it gives a similar sense as Bhutan agreed under the 1949 treaty “to be guided by the advice of the Government of India in regard to its external relations.”
Bhutan’s almost complete support to India policy’ gained some advantages in its economic field, especially in the hydropower sector. However, Nepal’s relation with both China and India is in doldrum position, using China India cards according to its convenience, which has been outdated. Nepal may lose the confidence of both the neighbors if balanced relationships are not maintained; it could be perilous for its foreign relationships and stability.
*Hari Prasad Shrestha is a former Undersecretary, Ministry of Finance Nepal and was associated with United Nations Development Programs in Africa. He is a writer of a book- The Violent Nile: a Novella on East Africa.