Looking Beyond the China Factor in Indo-Nepal relations

Rushali Saha
January 05, 2019


The tone of India’s relationship with Nepal was set early in 1951, following the Chinese Communists’ military occupation of Tibet, providing Nehru the rationale to embrace Nepal strategically as one of the most important neighboring countries. Indian policymakers have since then been critically aware of the strategic location of Nepal, and in pursuance of its own security interests, India has often attempted to secure a stable and cooperative regime in Nepal. From the very beginning, India had viewed Nepal as a special country, as evident from Nehru’s remark in the parliament when he said 

We recognize Nepal as an independent country and wish her well, but even a child knows that one cannot go to Nepal without passing through India. Therefore, no other country can have as intimate a relationship with Nepal as ours.” 

However, the increasing Chinese footprint in Nepal in the past decade, which is visible in economic, defense, and political spheres since the former announced its Belt and Road Initiative, has caused old security concerns for India vis-a-vis Nepal to re-emerge. 

These concerns come with a caveat; that looking at Nepal through the narrow prism of the country being a part of India’s sub-Himalayan strategic space, critical for securing its own security interests, would likely drive a wedge between a powerfully growing India and an increasingly cognisant Nepal. Nepal is India’s unique neighbor. Apart from being bound by common geostrategic terrains, they share common civilizational, historical, and socio-cultural ties. The dominant Nepali language has its roots in Sanskrit, Pali, and Hindi. The people of India and Nepal share commonalities in their attire, food habits, and lifestyles. This aspect often gets overshadowed by the security dimensions in Indo-Nepal ties, which further contribute to the instability in relations. One would expect the Treaty of Peace and Friendship 1950, which continues to serve as the foundation of bilateral relations, to pave the way for a smooth relationship. This, however, has not been the case. India’s security concerns, its measure of political grasp over Nepalese politics and government, and its inability to provide large economic aid have pushed Nepal to open up to the outside world, mostly to China. 

Nepal’s closeness to China can be traced to King Mahendra, who reigned from 1955-72, who is believed to have effectively used the strategy of using China to ward off political pressures and extract concessions from India. This trend followed under his successors King Birendra and King Gyanendra. Nepal signed the Treaty of Peace and Friendship with China in 1960. Then, the road construction project from Kathmandu to Kodari (located at the border with Tibet and China) in 1961 immediately followed and coincided with strained Sino-India relations. Nepal, however, took a neutral stand during the Sino-Indian war in 1962, following its own form of non-alignment to maximize the use of its strategic location between these two Asian giants. 

In the years that followed, Nepal’s threat perception came to be equated with regime security. As such, anti-monarchy and pro-democracy protests were viewed as a threat to state security. Subsequently, Indian pressures for the restoration of democracy exacerbated King Mahindra’s insecurity, and he allowed China to gradually expand its presence in Nepal, to counteract such pressures. This strategy was followed by his successors as well. Subsequently, India made its displeasure to these developments obvious when it halted military supplies to Nepal in 2005. 

India hailed Nepal’s transition to multi-party democracy in 1990, hoping to use mutual democratic credentials to build a healthy relationship, an option it thought would not be available to China. However, India got entangled to some extent in Nepal’s internal crises and politics, particularly during Nepal’s constitution-writing phase. In the process, New Delhi continued to underestimate Nepal’s sense of national pride and nationalism, and the extensive political consciousness the Nepalese people gained in their struggle for democracy. As the general population became more aware of their rights, they became disillusioned with instability, failure to ensure development, lack of institutional delivery, serving as a fertile ground for Maoist forces who had a visibly anti-India stance. Despite fragmentation among the different Maoist groups, a common thread binding them was criticism of India’s ‘big bully’ behavior. 

 India has mostly had friendly relations with her South Asian neighbors, with the exception of Pakistan. However, the asymmetry in relations serves as the fundamental hindrance to stronger ties in its neighborhood. None of India’s smaller neighbors can compare with her in terms of geography, population, economic development, and all the countries share a direct border with India. This proximity or access has led to anxiety and unease amongst her neighbors, and India has failed to allay such fears. While a collective regional security mechanism through institutional development may help overcome these fears, given the historical political tensions, mistrust, cross border conflicts, disputes over boundaries, the success of such a framework is highly doubtful. 

So what is the best way for India to deal with Nepal? First of all, it must learn from its experience that the lack of appreciation of each other’s concerns has only aggravated misunderstandings between them. Nepal should not be treated as a buffer state between India and China; instead, India should understand that economic development in Nepal will leave a positive impact on the bordering Indian states on its three sides. While India’s apprehensions with the Chinese infiltration is understandable, it has been 70 years since the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, and India should look for ways to assist Nepal in a way that furthers their economic development while building cultural connect. An “either us or them” approach will not work with Nepal, India should focus on implementation and delivery of its promises which will convince Nepal that the former is a reliable development partner. Nepal is a country with which friendship for India comes naturally. New Delhi needs to look at Nepal from a new lens, one that does not treat it as a ‘younger sister’ but more as an equal partner. 

*** The author is a postgraduate student of Political Science, with specialisation in International Relations, Jadavpur University, India. Her research interests include South Asian politics, specifically Indian foreign policy. ***