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India: Need to Relook Nepal from Chinese prism

Nepal being the closet neighbour of India has civilizational and historical linkages. The people, culture, religion, language, and food habits all have strong binding force. Yet, there seems to be a distance existing and expanding each day, more in terms of political ties between India and Nepal. Some view it as a creation of China’s enhanced penetration in Nepal; while others look into the faults of India’s policy towards Nepal. Modi becoming the Prime Minister of India accentuated the Nepalese concerns and resulted in mixed wave of positive and negative vibes of anxiety in the state.

Is it the policy of India creating tension among neighbouring small states? Or is it these small states have risen to demand a different relationship as the other closet neighbour – China is redefining ‘big power, small state’ relations? Alternatively, as the new global and regional realities are reshaped by economic power alliances, small states have also become conscious of their resources and geo-political position that can play a significant role for the rising big powers, especially India and China in Asian region.

Nepal though a small state between India and China is no more just a “buffer” between the two rising powers, but has its own significance and role to play between India and China. If India accepts the new realities of Nepal’s deepening relations with China and its growing economic need to look for alternatives beyond India, India-Nepal relations can be given a new jacket that will safeguard India’s deep-rooted bonding with Nepal; while maintaining India’s harmonious relations with China.

The most positive factor maintaining and developing relations between any two democratic neighbouring states is the closeness between the people of the country, which direct social forces to form different public opinion exerting strong political influence. The social panorama in the current globalized world is reconstructed by economic forces that see the creation of economic wealth as the only path for the overall development of a society. As the capitalist market forces spread their umbrella across nations, new forms of dependencies and inter-dependencies are created. Wealthy states and rising economic powers search for potential markets to cater to the growing demands of its own population as well as for fulfilling the material needs of the middle and upper class societies expanding within their states. It is this enhanced demand of the two rising economic giants – India and China, that states with resource potential and markets catering to their exported products have become of utmost significance. This has also produced what some term as “competition” between India and China.

Nepal, a country rich in resources, mainly hydropower, and having a potential market for commercial products, therefore, is quite significant for both India and China. USAID paper on Nepal and Rabindra B. Shrestha’s article on water resources in Nepal (Gorkhapatra, June 2014) are some estimates that show Nepal has a potential of generating about 44,000 MW from 66 hydropower project sites if commercially exploited; while some put the figure at 21,000 MW. Yet, at present only 600MW is generated from big and small hydropower plants. For development of such projects, Nepal needs funds to develop infrastructure and build hydropower projects. The cost for development of a run-of-river project is estimated to vary between USD 1,500 per KW to USD 5,000 per KW. It is here that nations willing and capable of providing assistance to Nepal become significant.

China has a dual-eye vision to deal with neighbouring states: One, to explore the resources and exploit the markets pouring in as much of aid/assistance as possible; Two, to safeguard its territorial borders and social stability affected due to external forces. In this vision, Nepal is at the centre of China’s neigbhouring state’s policy, which directly and closely affects overall situation within and around China. Till few years back, China viewed Nepal as a state protected and hugely influenced by India, whereby exerting its prowess was not viable. But the changes in Nepal’s political environment and the growing demand for its development created spaces within Nepal whereby China could make its foothold.

In recent years, Chinese presence in Nepal has accentuated to new heights. The flow of Chinese population has almost doubled with Chinese goods flooding Nepalese markets. There is also an undercurrent fortifying the spread of Chinese language and culture in Nepal with the boom of Confucius Institutes, China Study Centres and Chinese learning centres in Nepalese schools. The spread is making India worry about the real intentions of the Chinese mindset, which even though does not directly destabilize India’s relations with Nepal but creates greater inclination and affiliation of the Chinese state with Nepal. The anxiety among the Indian establishment is underlined by China’s growing influence in the region. Will China become more authoritative and assertive in the region, is the worst nightmare of Indian politicians.

Nepal has its own reasons to look for alternatives beyond India. Its poor economic conditions and unstable political future, poses threat to its own sovereign identity. Its concerns are marked with the growing demands of its population to have stability and prosperity within the state — an issue often a subject matter among its academicians and intelligentsia. With almost 30 per cent of poor population, abysmal infrastructure facilities, and 6-8 hours of power cuts in most cities of Nepal, its expanding middle class or the multiplying business-class people have put greater demand for a better living environment. Development based on economic growth and material benefits for the populace has become a need of the hour.

Nepal’s political engagement with India is marred of interference in its domestic affairs. The political circles debates of policy towards India often leads to two concurrent lines of thought: One, looking at India being too involved in political activities and extracting its resources; Two, expecting India to play greater role in stabilizing the state and helping it to prosper. India has increasingly been given greater responsibility to look at Nepal as an equal partner with sovereign status to deal with its own affairs. Any direct or indirect involvement is seen as interference and domination as big brother; rather than a supporter/assistance provider. On the other hand, China has made its image of an aid/assistance provider. Besides, China is working hard to move from a mere economic association with Nepal to negotiating deeper bilateral, multilateral, as well as regional alliances. This new visionary approach of China towards Nepal and other small states poses challenges for India to relook at its policy towards neighbouring states, especially with states India has had decades of stable bonding.

Economically, India holds a very firm position in the entire region. However, its relations with neighbouring states are not mere relations of interest based on economic geomatrix. India’s stand of ‘no alliances’ since its Independence has led to the creation of many unstable and unique relations with nations. However, in the changing and evolving new regional realities, India needs to seriously consider the policy options vis-à-vis neighbouring states. Chinese approach provides alternatives to establish relations of dependencies while advocating strategic ties. India needs to take a cautious approach to view Nepal not just as a buffer between India and China, but as a strategic partner to deal and link with China. Nepal’s geo-strategic position and raised consciousness of strengthening ties with neighbouring powers – both India and China, cannot be undermined. It is for India to wear the glossy glasses made in China to reassess its relations with Nepal and to rework on diminishing deficit in relationship.

(The writer Dr. Geeta Kochhar, is a Assistant Professor (Chinese), Jawaharlal Nehru University, Email: geeta@mail.jnu.ac.in) Disclaimer – The views expressed are of the author.

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