CHINA and India, two major military powers, were involved in border skirmishes and the resultant tensions recently, in a serious standoff that burst in the open in the latest edition. According to the obvious officially briefed Indian media reports, there were four Chinese incursions in as many years from 2015 but the number in 2019 recorded a spurt at 54. China’s 2.18 million troops and India’s strength of 1.4 million troops combine to create deep concerns for the region in particular and the international community in general but especially Nepal.
The spell of outwardly diplomatic correctness had veiled the calm before the shimmering differences heated up and surfaced. The latest skirmishes are attributed to China having stepped up construction works at its military bases 190 kilometres from their common border. India’s border disputes with neighbours number more and longer than China’s record with its 14 neighbours.
Geographically, flanked by the two giant nuclear powers against the background of another South Asian Pakistan in possession of more nuclear weapons than India’s, landlocked Nepal faces the constantly complicated and delicate task of dealing with these countries. Bordered by India in the east, west and south while China’s Tibet borders Nepal’s north, any conflict between the two most-populous countries places the land of Lord Buddha in a palpably tight spot. And Kashmir—the prime source of Indo-Pakistani conflicts—is located closer to western Nepal than much of the Indian subcontinent.
The several India-Pakistan and Sino-Indian wars and frequent border conflicts since the late 1940s might have prompted former Maoist Prime Minister Dr. Baburam Bhattarai a year ago to suggest the need to revive King Birendra’s 1975 proposal that Nepal be declared a zone of peace, which was endorsed by four permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and 112 other states from all continents.
However predictably cliché-ridden it might sound, dialogue and diplomacy are recognised as the ideal means of settling border issues but by no means by letting such differences drag on ceaselessly. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in an apparent display of displeasure, spurned the prearranged May 27 schedule for phone conversation with his Nepali counterpart KP Oli in connection with the Lipulek incident that has soured bilateral ties.
India has clamped on Nepal no less than four economic blockades, from the 1960s to the ongoing decade in 2015, though the two have never locked horns in any armed conflict. China wants space in South Asia while India is keen on being at least a regional power and aspires for a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council, with or without a veto status. Sharing many common features with Nepal, India needs to revise its outdated Nepal policy, which at times had turned quite harsh. Nepal needs India’s goodwill and vice versa.
Unlike his immediate predecessor Manmohan Singh, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is no accidental prime minister. Singh kept the seat warm for another party leader to take over anytime he felt like doing so. Modi has led his party to poll majority twice—a rare feat, enabling his Bharatiya Janata Party to trigger a tectonic shift in Indian politics. This marks a new awareness and mood everywhere in India and the neighbourhood.
In the past, Indian news media highlighted and commented in favour of political reforms in Nepal more because it suited their perception of security interest and not because of any sense of promoting democratic causes. Otherwise, they would be doing so heavily in favour of such reforms in the numerous authoritarian regimes with which the world’s most populous multiparty system maintains warm relations, be it in West Asia, Africa or elsewhere.
Little wonder that, going by Reporters Without Borders’ 2020 World Press Freedom Index, media freedom in India, ranked 142nd, stands behind Bhutan (67) the Maldives (79), Nepal (112), Afghanistan (122), Sri Lanka (127) and Pakistan (145), and a few rungs ahead of Bangladesh (151).
What the India intelligentsia stands vis-à-vis China should have been equally applicable to New Delhi-Kathmandu relations. In the latest border skirmishes along the Sino-Indian border, the media in India clamoured for China to not just express “sweet words” but prove through “action” Beijing’s friendship and goodwill pledged at official gatherings. In a similar vein, Nepal, too, presses for meaningful discussion with India for an early resolution of the border issue.
Conditions make comparisons inevitable when analysing the issues involving Nepal, India and China. Indian academics and experts, attached with government-funded institutions, in the past accused Nepal of using its “China card” to play India off against China. Also of note is that Beijing could someday be tapped for its good offices in ensuring peace India’s north-east and north-west states if ever the type of serious troubles it was confronted with in the past should—God forbid—recur.
As an economic power, China seeks markets for its goods, services and technology whereas the United States-led West wants both ideological and economic dominance in the world order. Beijing, too, lost some points in good neighbourliness in 2015 during Modi’s China visit when it issued a statement with the Indian guest to make Lipulek a trading post. In sharp reaction, three-time Nepal’s former Prime Minister Kirtinidhi Bista put his strong protest note to pen and paper and published it in a major daily newspaper.
Notwithstanding the esteem Beijing accorded him at Boao conferences and other programmes, Bista in the autumn of his life -- two years before breathing his last -- did not take to the interference meekly, in what could be interpreted as when it came to national interest, a person with patriotic vision would not wilt by maintaining silence. It was during his tenure that nearly a dozen and a half Indian military checks posts, with whose presence Beijing turned highly suspicious, were scrapped.
Consistency is the hallmark of credibility and moral strength, unless a government considers any advantage—due or dubious—taking precedence over all other rational considerations.
It might be a cliché but is relevant just the same: As the first and foremost priority, quiet diplomacy and dialogue should be put to work, whatever the territorial size and population of the countries thus involved. Modi could summon goodwill actions that match his words appreciating the many common cultural, religious and other values he mentions during his Nepal visits. Of note is that some 50,000 Nepalese Gurkhas serve in the Indian army.
(Professor P. Kharel specialises in political communication.)
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