Is there a China connection?It is interesting that the other disputed area—Susta—has not been included in Nepal's new map.
Any remark by Indians whether there is a China connection in the new map of Nepal, at any level, has been strongly refuted by Nepalis. They dismiss linkages between the new map and China by saying that first, such hypothesis undermines the sovereignty of Nepal, and second, the new map is based on Nepali historical claims, as per its interpretation of the 1816 Sugauli Treaty, which fixed the Kali River as the western boundary of Nepal, disregarding other historical facts that explain the Indian position.
The most plausible reason advanced by some commentators in the Nepali media is that Prime Minister KP Oli, beset with internal challenges within his party, took advantage of India’s Kailash-Mansarovar road inauguration last May, and raised this issue to divert public attention away from his failure to manage governance issues in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, and a threat to his leadership from his peers.
Significantly, even if the issue of Kalapani had been raised earlier, Nepal did not issue the map in response to the new map issued by India last November. If that had been the case, the street protests organised in the wake of the issue of the new map by India could have been leveraged by Prime Minister Oli to revise the maps in November itself. Interestingly, in the midst of the pandemic, Prime Minister Oli had brought in two ordinances, one of which sought to amend the existing Political Parties Act, making it easier for a party to split. This was resented by senior leaders of his own party, and the pressure was mounting on him to resign from the party co-chairmanship.
Against this backdrop, the China angle comes in because of a train of events that coincided with the issue of the map. Ten days before the new map was issued, Indian Army and Chinese People's Liberation Army personnel had clashed at the line of actual control near the Nathula sector in Sikkim, and in the eastern Ladakh sector. Although there is no demonstrable link between the India-China border disputes with the inauguration of the Kailash-Mansarovar road, and subsequent protests in Nepal, the role of China to take advantage of the long-pending Nepal-India border disputes at this juncture cannot be entirely ruled out due to the following reasons.
Firstly, Chinese interest in India-Nepal bilateral territorial disputes had surfaced first in November 2008 when the then home minister of Nepal, Bamdev Gautam, had made a statement after meeting a Chinese military delegation in Kathmandu that the Kalapani border dispute could be resolved through a trilateral understating between Nepal, India and China. The visiting Chinese military delegation was led by Major General Ei Hujeng.
Secondly, as per Nepali claims, the new map issued by India in November 2019 showing the three disputed territories—Kalapani, Limpiyadhura and Lipulekh—as being within Indian territory was an encroachment on Nepali territory. It was viewed as a serious cartographic exercise by India in Nepal. It was logical, therefore, to expect that Nepal would have issued a new map in November 2019 itself. Yet, a new map was only issued around the time India-China border tensions started building up in May 2020.
Now, the Nepal government has justified that the new map needed to be incorporated into the national emblem through a constitutional amendment. As per the amendment, the new map showing Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura within Nepal became part of the constitution and the national emblem. It is interesting to note that the other ‘disputed’ area—Susta—has not been included in the new map. Can it be said that since Susta is not strategically important for China, it was not considered for portrayal in the new map?
Fourthly, the construction of the Kailash-Mansarovar road began in 2008 and was scheduled to be completed in 2013. The construction got delayed due to the tough terrain, especially in the portion between Nazang to Bundi village. The Border Roads Organisation completed the 80-km stretch connecting Ghatiabgarh and Lipulekh in April 2020. Nepal had prior information about the road. This is puzzling for India as to why Nepal did not object to that particular 'road construction' diplomatically while the construction was going on for the last 12 years, and raised it only at a time when India-China border tensions built up.
Last but not the least, while the arguments made in the previous paragraphs link China indirectly with the Nepali decision to issue the new map, some of the recent statements from the Chinese side indicate China’s new-found interest in the India-Nepal border dispute. China’s border trade agreement with India on Lipulekh in May 2015 and its statements to resolve the India-Nepal border disputes amicably, however, contradict Chinese allusion to the area as a dispute.
The Chinese statements cannot be seen in isolation, given the inroads made by China during the last few years into Nepali politics. Chinese pressure tactics used against countries with which it has territorial disputes is quite well known. It has settled borders with most of its neighbours largely using such tactics. It has tried this with India, too, without any success. It is not by accident that the People's Liberation Army transgressed into Indian territory each time senior leaders of both countries were either meeting or about to meet to discuss bilateral issues, as was the case during the Wuhan and Mamallapuram summits.
There are two reasons for that. First, China tries to put pressure on Indian leaders during the negotiations, while it is fully aware that the elected government would come under pressure through media reporting on the border issues. Second, the People's Liberation Army tries to signal that it is not entirely under the control of the Communist Party of China or President Xi Jinping. In the present context, it also seems natural for China to use Nepal as another pressure point for India to be able to extract some concessions from India and strengthen its relations with Nepal.
Therefore, it may not be correct to argue that China does not have any role in the India-Nepal border dispute, especially since border tensions have been running high since May 2020, irrespective of its agreement with India on Lipulekh in 2015. The Nepali leadership needs to understand this and fashion its diplomatic posture vis-à-vis India in the long-term interest of equal partnership between the two countries.
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