Nepal Outplaces Pakistan as China Puppet?

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Pakistan has long played the role of China’s most favorite puppet—or parrot– in South Asia, believing it to be essential for its survival. Now Nepal seems to be in a hurry to take over that position from India’s nuclear neighbor.

An essential condition that prompts the Chinese Dragon to adopt nations as pets and clients to serve its foreign policy goals in the region is their willingness to constantly provoke India. Pakistan does it with both words and action—exporting terror and ceasefire violations.

Pakistan by virtue of being the most howling faithful of the Chinese would perhaps like to be called the Rottweiller of the Chinese. But the clever Chinese know that the Pakistanis can indeed bark very hard but are in no position to bite India.

Nepal has—so far—restricted itself to a single note, that of needling India by hurling allegations of aggressive moves designed to challenge sovereignty of the tiny Himalayan nation. Nepal does not export terror to India, though it has not prevented the notorious ISI of Pakistan from carrying out anti-India operations, including circulation of counterfeit Indian currency from its soil.

In the latest instance of playing a tune on Chinese cue, Nepal has raised a diplomatic storm by virtually accusing India of grabbing a small but vital part of its territory at the tri-junction of India, China and Nepal.

It has quickly brought out a map to show the Lipu Lekh Pass as its own while denouncing India for building a road across it that is designed to transport pilgrims to Kailash Mansarovar and facilitate some trade.

In support of its contention, Nepal has referred to Sugauli Treaty signed more than two centuries ago—in 1816—which it says shows the Pass as Nepalese territory.

The recourse to antiquity is interesting. China too makes vast claims over territories across the seas and several neighbouring countries on the basis of what the Chinese map looked like centuries ago. It does not seem to matter that since then there have been many changes brought about by both war and diplomacy. Nepal is only following a precedent set by its Chinese lord.

The Lipu Lekh Pass is one of the border passes opened under a trade agreement between India and Tibet in 1954 before China had illegally and forcefully occupied Tibet. But bilateral trade continued without any objections from Nepal.

After the 1962 Chinese invasion of India the Pass was closed. Following a thaw in the bilateral relations in 1981, the Lipu Lekh Pass was opened again, this time for pilgrimage to Kailash Mansarovar.

Ten years later, in 1991, a bilateral agreement paved the way for resumption of trade across the Lipu Lekh Pass with its apology of a road. India then decided to build a regular road for vehicular traffic that may not have gone down very well with the Chinese but it is the Nepalese who are shouting the loudest.

The trade agreement signed by the Chinese with India clearly acknowledged that Lipu Lekh Pass was Indian territory or, at least, was part of the Line of Actual Control, else they would have signed a tripartite agreement involving Nepal.

Nepal reportedly protested to China about signing an agreement with India without involving them. It did not seem to be serious as the agreement was neither abrogated nor altered. In 2015 India and China had agreed to boost their bilateral trade.

China reportedly agreed to revise the agreement with India on Nepal’s request (or protest) but took no initiative to undo the agreement already signed with India.

Border dispute between India and Nepal is not a new development but it has looked a serious matter in recent years as Nepal’s politics after the overthrow of the monarchy took a decisive pro-Chinese and anti-India turn. Before that India-Nepal relations used to have their ups and downs without causing much harm.

India has every reason to suspect that Kathmandu’s recent hostility is prompted by Beijing. The internal dynamics of Nepalese politics also contributes to consolidating anti-India feeling.

The Communists in Nepal who have deep fissures within their ranks and who were at one time tilted towards India are now willingly pandering to Chinese interests. Their unmitigated hostility towards India seems to pay them political dividends.

That, however, does not prevent internal fights within the Communist political commune in Nepal. They look to China to iron out their differences, as was the case recently when a former prime minister led an internal revolt against the current Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli.

It was no secret that the Chinese ambassador in Kathmandu acted as the mediator between the different factions in the Nepalese Communist Party and saved the day for Oli who is perhaps the most virulent anti-India leader Nepal has known.

When he said after the eruption of the Lipu Lekh Pass controversy that the ‘Indian virus’ was more dangerous than the Chinese or the Italian virus he was actually denigrating India rather than explaining the nature of the coronavirus in his country.

Oli, unlike some of the previous prime ministers of Nepal who were critical of India, is so thoroughbred anti-India that he has side-stepped the chances of resolving the so-called boundary dispute with India through diplomacy and dialogue.

The upheaval caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic may prevent the dispute from escalating into a more serious confrontation despite the Chinese backing that Nepal is assured. While rejecting Nepal’s ‘artificial enlargement’ of its territorial claim, India has not indicated any plan for an early dialogue due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But will any purpose be served by talking to Kathmandu at this stage. This is a pertinent question with no ready answer more so as the Nepalese stance appears to be dictated by the divisions in their internal politics as well.

There is a view that Prime Minister Oli’s latest anti-India rhetoric is entirely a result of domestic compulsions which have brought into play what are termed as survival politics.

These ifs and buts of Nepal scene notwithstanding, the fact remains that Nepal runs the risk of becoming yet another colonial vassal of China with its new faculty of fuming at India “at the behest of someone else”.