It is not merely a denial to participate in the first ever joint military exercise within the framework of BIMSTEC (The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) from a close neighbor Nepal rather specific parallel developments in China-Nepal relations that would cause serious concerns within the Indian strategic circle.
Nepal is now poised to participate in a 12-day long joint military exercise with China termed as Sagarmatha Friendship-2 scheduled to be undertaken from September 17 to 28 in Chengdu. It is worthwhile to mention that even while it took 17 years for BIMSTEC to establish a permanent secretariat in Dhaka in 2014, India is recently making concerted attempts at invigorating the sub-regional initiative in the face of enhancing Chinese sway in the region.
In this context, Nepalese backtrack from joint military exercise on the ground that the initiative is meant for development and not to serve military purpose was bound to raise skepticism about bilateral ties in New Delhi.
In another development, in a meeting in Kathmandu, Chinese and Nepalese officials finalized the protocol of Transit and Transport Agreement (TTA) which would allow Nepal access to four Chinese ports in Tianjin, Shenzhen, Lianyungang and Zhanjiang including access to dry ports and roads facilities. This carries serious implications for India as it would go a long way in diminishing Kathmandu’s trade dependence on New Delhi.
It is fresh in memory that the communist leadership of Nepal extended warm welcome to Indian Prime Minister Modi on his visit to Nepal in May 2018, however, KP Oli government’s decision that the Nepalese Army will not participate in the first ever joint military exercise of BIMSTEC scheduled to be held from September 10, 2018, its willingness to participate in a joint military exercise with China and its attempts at lessening Nepal’s economic dependence on India by securing port and road facilities in China unambiguously point to the fact the South Asian neighbor is more within the Chinese orbit of influence than that of India.
India under Narendra Modi’s leadership underlining the importance of the South Asian neighborhood to realize the objective of rising beyond the region adopted a ‘neighborhood first’ policy. In line with this policy framework, he not only invited the leaders of the South Asian countries to his swearing in ceremony, he started his foreign visits with state visits in the neighborhood – Bhutan on 15-16 June, 2014 followed by Nepal on 3-4 August in the same year.
Further, in line with its ‘neighborhood first’ policy, New Delhi played a leading role in the deliberations of the 18th SAARC Summit held at Kathmandu on November 26-27, 2015 to strengthen the regional integration process and took initiatives in introducing connectivity proposals on road, rail and power (electricity) but in vain. However, the summit raised Indian concerns when specific South Asian countries including Nepal expressed their willingness to induct China from an ‘observer’ status to full membership in SAARC indicating the fact of rising Chinese influence in India’s neighborhood.
Nepalese distaste for India’s primacy in South Asia stems largely from New Delhi’s erratic policies towards its neighbor. Kathmandu not only viewed New Delhi’s support for the institution of Monarchy and then redirecting its support to democratic forces and its alleged involvement in undermining the rise of communist parties as opportunistic but India’s interference in its internal affairs. Use of economic blockade as a pressure tactic to bring in political influence in Nepal contributed to souring of bilateral relations in 1989-90.
Further, New Delhi has been implicated and criticized towards the end of 2015 for its alleged unofficial role in forcing an economic blockade in favor of Madhesi population as way to exert influence on the constitutional developments in Kathmandu. Although New Delhi claimed that the new Constitution of Nepal was allegedly framed in way to discriminate against Madheshi population who shared ethnic identity with similar groups in India and therefore it sought changes in the constitutional provisions to accommodate interests and rights of Madhesis, such claims could not dispel distrust in Kathmandu which was built upon Nepalese suspicions of Indian hegemonic intentions. New Delhi has had also ignored several Nepalese requests for assisting in the repartition of Bhutanese refugees which has been of crucial importance to Kathmandu.
While New Delhi has earned reputation in dispatching humanitarian missions soon after natural disasters or humanitarian crisis affected any of its South Asian neighbors and quickly responded to Nepalese crisis following an earthquake in 2015, this purely non-military and assistive role which should have enhanced India’s soft power in the neighborhood – astonishingly and ironically, drew criticisms from Nepalese because the Indian media was alleged to be insensitive and biased in its coverage of the disaster.
It is noteworthy that apart from training Nepalese soldiers every year, India lent support to train and equip Nepali police. Both India and Nepal have established security mechanisms like Nepal-India Bilateral Consultative Group on Security Issues. India has special Gurkha regiments comprising soldiers recruited from Nepal within its armed forces to bolster security ties between the two countries.
Despite these bilateral ties, as the Chinese foray into the South Asian region looms large given that the infrastructure projects under Chinese ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) have already taken off in the form of construction of roads, railways and air ports in landlocked Nepal to creation of ports, bridges and airport facilities in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the Maldives, any sign of Nepalese disagreement with Indian proposal (the proposal for the joint military exercise within BIMSTEC was made by the Indian Army in June 2018) and uptick in China-Nepal relations would indicate India’s inability to win trust in its neighborhood.
India, a country with mammoth size and large population drawn from diverse ethnic, cultural and linguistic communities sharing commonalities with similar groups in the neighborhood and the fact that India and its neighbors share common geographical borders in the Himalayas and Indian Ocean engender perceptions of New Delhi’s legitimate security interests in the neighborhood to defend its territorial integrity from adverse political and military developments in the region, therefore, these developments in the neighborhood would be seriously viewed in New Delhi and would propel the security establishment to devise ways and means in order not to allow relations with Kathmandu sink further.