India will need to find new, adroit strategies to maintain its strategic leverage in Nepal
Indian Army Chief Bipin Rawat was conferred the rank of an honorary general of the Nepal Army last week, with the old-world pomp both countries pride themselves on. The truth, however, is that Kathmandu lies at the heart of India’s most important geopolitical challenge, with China testing what has been Indian near-hegemony over the direction of Nepal’s external policy. Last month, Nepal’s Prime Minister, Pushpa Kumar Dahal, better known by his one-time nom de guerre Prachanda, was in Beijing in an effort to address domestic criticism that he has tilted too far towards India. Nepal’s media has suggested China used the opportunity to dish out some delicate diplomatic insults — declining to treat his March 27 visit to the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference as a state visit, citing lack of time for preparations, and choosing not to conclude any significant agreements. The reports, if true, would suggest Beijing was repaying Dahal’s decision not to sign bilateral agreements while at the BRICS summit in Goa last year.
Behind tensions between China and Nepal lie the latter’s ties to India. Beijing has been pressing Dahal to sign on its One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, thus opening the way for expanded railway links between the two countries. Dahal is believed to have said he will sign an OBOR deal this summer, but the Prime Minister’s concerns are none too opaque: Dramatically enhanced transport ties between Nepal and China would discomfit New Delhi. Following the showdown between India and the government of Prime Minister K.P. Oli, which led to Dahal’s rise, the Prime Minister has been careful not to irk the country’s most important strategic partner. Indeed, Dahal visited India just a month after taking office, but took seven to travel east to Beijing. In turn, Chinese premier Xi Jinping visited Bangladesh in October, but he skipped what media reports suggest was a scheduled visit to Nepal.
New Delhi has sought to cement its own economic relationship with Nepal, notably by expanding power trade and developing new gas pipelines that will feed much of the country. The reality, however, is that Beijing’s raw economic muscle will make it hard for India to maintain the choke-hold it has long had over Nepal’s strategic destiny. The Nepal-Tibet railroad, which China hopes to extend from the border town of Gyirong to Kathmandu by 2024, will transfigure economic realities on the ground, knocking off the 870 kilometre road journey for goods coming from China. India will need to find new, adroit strategies to maintain its strategic leverage.
(Editorial in the Indian Express)