After snubbing India on border clash, Nepal faces reality-check as Beijing encroaches its territory to construct roads in Tibet
Nepal and India's relations have taken a turn decidedly for the worse, possibly for the first time since the ugly 2015 'blockade',
As Nepal is busy castigating India over 'unilateral encroachment' of its territory, China has been quietly changing course of rivers on Nepali land and building roads to erode Kathmandu's territorial claims over land it deems part of Tibet. Yet Nepal's reactions to the two perceived wrongs has been vastly different.
Nepal and India's relations have taken a turn decidedly for the worse, possibly for the first time since the ugly 2015 'blockade', over a territorial dispute that had been festering for ages. Nepal angrily stomped its foot, stirred up public sentiments, and unilaterally amended its political map without holding talks through diplomatic channel over a road built in Lipulekh -- a territory effectively under Indian control for more than 60 years.
The pretext for the action was a road defence minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated on 8 May, and India's new political map issued last year, demarcating Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh as two different Union Territories, but leaving its external boundaries intact.
The construction of the road had started in 2008 and the Indian Army had border outposts and substantial troop deployment in the area since after the war of 1962 with China.
However, the KP Sharma Oli-led government decried the 'sudden change' in status quo and shrewdly riled up anti-India sentiments at a time of domestic political difficulties.
This even when articles in Nepali media also point out that maps since 1905, released by the Survey of India, have shown this area as Indian territory.
Furthermore, China, who Nepal has increasingly relied upon to push back against India, has also noted India's claim over Kalapani and Lipulekh in a 2015 statement. It recognised the Lipulekh pass as a junction of India, China trade and has so far been silent on Nepal's concerns over Indian infrastructure in the region.
India-China border trade through the Lipulekh pass, located at a height of 17,000 feet in Pithoragarh district’s Chand valley, resumed in 1992 after remaining suspended for decades following the 1962 India-China War. It begins in June every year and goes on till October.
Meanwhile, China is using increased road construction in Tibet to encroach on Nepali land and may set up border outposts in these areas in the future, says a Nepal government report accessed by ANI.
The report, prepared by Survey Department of Agriculture Ministry, shows a list of 11 places, of which China has encroached on 10 places comprising about 33 hectares of Nepali land, by diverting the flow of rivers which act as a natural boundary.
"The flow of rivers is gradually receding the Nepalese territories and if it continues to remain so for some more time, it would cede the maximum portion of Nepal's land towards TAR," the document obtained by ANI states.
A total of 10 hectares of land has been encroached on in Humla district as Chinese construction works diverted Bagdare Khola river and Karnali river. Six hectares of Nepali land has been encroached on in Rasuwa district as the construction work in Tibet brought diversions in Sinjen, Bhurjuk and Jambu Khola.
Likewise, a total of 11 hectares of Nepali land is already claimed by China for "falling in Tibet" with the diversion of Kharane Khola and Bhote Kosi in Sindhupalchowk district.
Chinese road construction in Tibet also has diverted the flow of Sumjung, Kam Khola and Arun rivers of Sankhuwasabha district resulting in the encroachment on nine hectares of Nepali land. The document has warned that Nepal would lose more lands if proper steps are not taken in time.
"If the receding of land by rivers continues, then hundreds of hectares naturally go towards TAR. There is a high possibility that over a period of time, China may develop Border Observation Post (BOP) of its armed police in those territories," the document states. After the survey in the 1960s and erection of pillars to determine the boundary with China, Nepal has not initiated any further steps to secure its border.
Only a total of 100 pillars were erected on the northern side of the border with China. While with India the number of pillars stands at 8,553.
Moreover, the above report quoted by ANI finds little mention in local media, whereas reams of space has been dedicated to op-eds and editorials on India-Nepal border dispute.
In recent times, the world has witnessed an escalation in China's territorial aggression on all sides of its border.
Its actions led to a violent standoff with India near Ladakh. It has had standoffs with Vietnam and Malaysia in the South China Sea, pressurised Taiwan with nighttime drills in Taiwan Strait and threatened Australia with the boycott of wine, beef, barley, and Chinese students.
Beijing has also brought in a new law - Hong Kong Security law - to increase its control on the semi-autonomous city despite strong protests.
Furthermore, China's debt-trap diplomacy is also not an unheard of concept. At a time when Nepal is increasing its dependence on Beijing, experts believe rampant lending in the past has led to mounting debt and few, if any, jobs in most countries.
"China has characterized its 'Belt and Road initiative' (of which Nepal is also a signatory) as a win-win for its aspirations to become a global trade leader and developing economies’ desire to fund transportation infrastructure. It has certainly filled the vacuum created by a shrinking American presence in global institutions. But as with Western internationalist projects, China is also facing accusations of imperialist behavior when its debt plans go wrong," The Quartz notes in an article.
Another article in DW indicates how Beijing is also employing soft diplomacy to boost cultural ties with Nepal.
"China is slowly increasing its political and cultural ties to Nepal. There is already a relationship between the Communist Party of China and the Nepal Communist Party. China is also growing its soft influence in Nepal through China study centers and businesses... Some private schools in Nepal have reportedly agreed to make Mandarin a compulsory subject in classes in return for China footing the salary for the language teacher," the report said.
To please Beijing, Nepal already underscores 'One China' Police and has vowed not to let Nepalese soil be used for anti-China activities. This antagonises over 20,000 Tibetans seeking refuge in Nepal.
The DW article states that Beijing has already been pushing Kathmandu to increase patrol on border areas and to turn over Tibetans who try to escape China by entering Nepal.
The report cited a confidential document published by WikiLeaks in 2010, to claim that China offered to 'reward' Nepali forces if they handed over Tibetans fleeing across the border.
In 2020, pre-COVID-19 figures indicated that China accounted for over 90 percent of foreign direct investments. Kathmandu signed a transit protocol with Beijing last year.
In a time when other South Asian nations are realising the costs involved in overtly courting China, Nepal must reasses if it is ready to embrace the Chinese only to shed the perceived threat from India.
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