Nepal-China Ties: New Delhi should work with Beijing and Kathmandu to boost trilateral cooperation

RudroneelBy Rudroneel Ghosh

Nepali Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli’s visit to China raises some significant points that India would do well to note. First, the Chinese pretty much laid out the red carpet for Oli prompting the latter to describe Nepal-China ties as “higher than Mount Everest and superior than the Great Wall (of China)”. In return, China has promised not to interfere in Nepal’s internal matters, welcomed its new Constitution, and inked a slew of agreements that will provide Nepal with transit facilities, rail links and boosted bilateral trade.

Contrast this with Oli’s visit to India last month. Although the Nepali PM was accorded a state visit, that trip was aimed more at mending fences. Ties between New Delhi and Kathmandu had soured after the former refused to welcome Nepal’s new Constitution which was perceived as discriminatory towards ethnic Madhesis. This was followed by a five-month-long blockade of the India-Nepal border by protesting Madhesis that severely curtailed the supply of fuel and other essentials to Nepal. Many in Nepal continue to believe that the blockade had clandestine support of New Delhi even though the latter vehemently denies this.

Against this backdrop China has not only inked a fuel deal that will see it meet one-third of Nepal’s needs in petroleum products, but also agreed to extend the strategic Tibet rail link to the Nepali side. Plus, a free trade agreement is also in the works. All of this, without doubt, is aimed at reducing landlocked Nepal’s dependence on India – hitherto 65% of Kathmandu’s trade passed through its southern neighbour. The blockade has taught the Nepalis not to put all its eggs in the Indian basket. And a China with deep pockets can certainly ameliorate Nepal’s infrastructure and connectivity woes.

Given this scenario, the last thing New Delhi should do is get into a zero-sum diplomatic tussle with Beijing. The truth is, we simply don’t have the resources to play this game. And trying to get Nepali political stakeholders to stymie Chinese investments will only attract more charges of Indian interference in Nepal’s internal affairs – we have already seen what this has done to the New Delhi-Kathmandu relationship. Instead, a better approach would be to use this opportunity to boost India-Nepal-China trilateral cooperation.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has already stated that Nepal can be a bridge between India and China. This sentiment needs to be welcomed. In fact, New Delhi should go a step further and become a partner in China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ project of transnational connectivity. There’s no denying that Chinese investments towards India’s infrastructure development have the potential to galvanise India’s economy. In this context, Chinese investments can actually help create a significant portion of the 10 million new jobs that India needs each year.

Besides, China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ can be a game changer for the subcontinent as a whole by creating multiple stakeholders in growth and prosperity, including in Pakistan. This in turn has the potential to reduce conflicts and bring all South Asian players on the same growth page. Hence, coming back to Nepal, India has nothing to fear from China’s investments in the Himalayan nation. Indian and Nepali people share deep historical, cultural and religious bonds that China can never replace. Thus, let Beijing economically help Kathmandu, which desperately needs this assistance after last year’s devastating earthquake. On its part, New Delhi would do well to create conditions for more Chinese investments in India itself.

(Rudroneel Ghosh is a Delhi-based journalist working for the Edit Page of The Times of India. This article was originally published in the Times of India blog on March 25, 2016)

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