Nepal lies quite literally on the fault line between India and China.
The tiny Himalayan nation straddles the tectonic plate beneath the Indian subcontinent and the Eurasian plate that lies below China – and it was a buildup of stress between the two that caused the devastating earthquake in Nepal last week, which has killed at least 5,800 people in the capital and remote villages.
But Nepal also finds itself jammed between India and China in the geopolitical sense. Like the Himalayas themselves, Nepal lies between the two hulking giants of Asia that, from the days of Mao and Nehru, have historically had competing ideological visions for how to lead the poorer parts of the continent toward economic and political development. It was no surprise to anyone that Indian and Chinese rescue teams were some of the first to land in Kathmandu, a continuation of a historic play for influence in a mountain kingdom that separates the two powers along a still-contested border, which, in 1962, saw fierce fighting between the Indian and Chinese armies.
“This is a perfect example of the kind of rivalry that the two are conducting along a 2,000-kilometre-long border up there,” says Joseph Caron, who served as Canada’s ambassador to China as well as its high commissioner to India, a position that also entails being the top envoy in Nepal and Bhutan. “It’s an interesting match between the two. And in the current circumstances, I trust that the Nepalese authorities are taking advantage of both of these players.”
China and India, both of which have piled tonnes of aid into Nepal in recent days, loom large in the minds of Nepal’s ruling elite, who have an obvious stake in playing its two powerful neighbours off each other. That elite, after all, was destabilized by a massacre of the royal family in 2001, and has existed in a post-conflict situation since the end of hostilities with Maoist insurgents that ended in 2006. Its rulers – who have failed to agree on a new constitution since the monarchy toppled in 2008 – preside over a weak state with little capacity to respond to disasters, according to Michael Hutt, a professor at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.
Nepal reportedly declined Taiwan’s offer of a search-and-rescue team shortly after the disaster, likely for fear of angering China. And Nepal’s security forces frequently crack down on protests by the country’s 20,000-odd Tibetan refugees, who fear China’s growing influence in the country – influence Mr. Caron says is often “not terribly subtle.” Many refugees who come across the Tibetan border with Nepal are now thought to be shunted down into India, which shelters the Dalai Lama and Tibet’s government-in-exile in Dharamsala, much to China’s dismay.
India sees Nepal not just as a similar, Hindu-majority nation, but as an integral part of its regional sphere of influence in South Asia – a key component of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy of boosting cultural and economic ties with India’s neighbours in SAARC, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation.
Mr. Modi immediately tweeted India’s support for Nepal after the earthquake, reportedly giving Nepal’s prime minister, who was travelling abroad, his first knowledge of the disaster. India has long exerted itself in Nepalese politics as a paternalistic force, and helped broker a peace deal in New Delhi that ended Nepal’s Maoist insurgency, Prof. Hutt says. “Modi has, up until now, played his cards really well. The popular perception is that he’s a friend of Nepal,” Prof. Hutt says. “It was very appreciated, but obviously there’s a strategic agenda at play there, too.”
There is also a clear domestic political rationale for India – not just because many Indians feel an affinity with Nepal, but because the ardent Hindu nationalists who support Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party are also keen for religious reasons. Several Hindu hardliners tweeted approvingly of Indian assistance to Nepal’s Hindus, since it might displace assistance from Christian groups or missionaries who are frequently suspected of attempting to convert poor, lower-caste Hindus.
In recent years, China has tried to assert a rival influence. It has far more financial resources than India and has ramped up development assistance and infrastructure spending in Nepal, which is the most accessible route into China’s sensitive autonomous region of Tibet. China rushed rescue teams and aid to Nepal in the wake of the earthquake.
Yves Tiberghien, who heads the University of British Columbia’s Institute of Asian Research, said there will be tension and competition between the two regional powers over the next few years of reconstruction in Nepal.
“When reconstruction has happened, one or the other will have gained an advantage relative to the other, either China or India,” he says. “Will India show that it has capacity in helping rebuild its neighbour, and building infrastructure? Or will this reassert Chinese supremacy in infrastructure development?”