What a 'missing' border pillar tells us about Nepal-China relationsThe Humla episode has revealed severe weaknesses in Nepal’s foreign policy outlook.
Finally, the troublesome border pillar number 11 was found buried under snow and rubble on a ridge 5,275 metres high. For a week, the pillar had become the centre of troubling attention. Its absence, and the new permanent structures constructed by the Chinese on their side of the border across the Lapcha Pass in Limi Valley, Humla, had sent Nepali authorities into a tizzy.
The story began when Limi locals reported Chinese construction on the Nepali side of the border at Lapcha Pass to local authorities. The Lapcha Pass is the only place in Nepal from where one can view the duo of Mt Kailash and Lake Mansarovar; apart from being a border pass, it was historically used by trade caravans to cross over into Tibet and by local pastoralists to access grazing grounds on both sides. It is also where the second road in Humla starts from, and allows Limi residents to truck down goods from Taklakot in China.
When the authorities arrived at the pass, they found nine new permanent structures on what were earlier grazing grounds. Chinese authorities asked them to return, telling them the structures were on Chinese territory. With a border pillar missing, no one could say where the border itself was. By this time, the news had travelled beyond Limi to national media. When the Indian media began picking up the news, the Foreign Ministry in Kathmandu immediately issued a statement saying the structures were built on Chinese land. The Home Ministry asked the assistant CDO of Humla, who flagged the issue to the media, to clarify within 24 hours why he did so. A Nepal Army team found the pillar. The Nepali ambassador to China went beyond his call of duty and blamed the Indian media for stoking trouble between Nepal and China.
The issue has now been laid to rest. The episode, however, has revealed some intriguing aspects of the modern Nepal-China bilateral relationship and raised several questions.
The first is the glaring asymmetry between Nepal and China’s infrastructural capabilities in the Himalayan borderlands. While China’s push for development in the Tibetan plateau has allowed Nepalis who live in border districts to benefit from it, it has also laid bare the absence of Nepali state capacity in these regions. The hunt for the border pillar is just one part of the syndrome. While I’ve previously written about how the northern border operates on the prerogative of China—the closure of the two border points at Rasuwagadhi and Tatopani is another example—the Humla episode also tells us about how the Nepali state is largely absent from the more remote regions.
The second observation is that Nepal would benefit more by inducting the local population of Himalayan regions into its state institutions, at least on the border. When I travelled to Limi Valley in 2018, none of the police officials posted at the Sunakothi post, the only police presence in the entire valley, belonged to Limi or even came from the mountains. In Lo Manthang, the story was the same. Such exclusion of local people into state institutions means Nepali authorities posted in the regions don’t know the terrain and the language, and are viewed as aliens in these remote but vital communities.
The third observation comes from the clarification sought from the assistant CDO, which will discourage local bureaucrats from flagging any future issues on the China border, a deeply troubling state of affairs. Consider a situation on the southern border: if a bureaucrat flagged issues in Susta, or spoke about missing border pillars as is regularly reported from the border with India, would they be similarly reprimanded?
The fourth is a lesson from history. Nearly 60 years ago, a more serious dispute had occurred on the Mustang border, when Chinese troops accidentally shot a Nepali soldier and took several troops as prisoners. At that time, Prime Minister BP Koirala wrote categorically to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai that the death was unacceptable, and that the Chinese troops had crossed over into Nepali territory. Zhou, in turn, apologised for the death but insisted his troops hadn’t crossed the border. After a back-and-forth of letters between the two leaders justifying each side’s arguments and positions, the matter ended when China offered compensation for the death of the soldier and immediately released all prisoners. Zhou would not concede Chinese troops had crossed the border. But BP was equally adamant. ‘I agree with your view that it would not serve any gainful purpose to continue arguing over the incident. I want to place on record however that nothing has given His Majesty’s Government reason to change their stand that the incident took place on Nepalese territory’, he wrote to Zhou on July 24 1960—a month after the incident was reported.
Any casual observer of contemporary affairs would notice the difference between BP’s level-headed approach that put Nepal’s core interests first, and the current establishment’s response that absolved China immediately. As a report queried, why did the Foreign Ministry issue a statement when the Home Ministry was yet to submit its ground report? Further, why did the Home Ministry reprimand its employee when all he did was flag the issue? And finally, did the Chinese side update Nepali officials about the construction of the new structures in the border region, as has been outlined in Articles 8 and 10 of the recently signed border management system treaty?
This brings us to the final observation, which is that although the current dispensation can be commended for expanding the scope of relations with our northern neighbour, its officials are also in a rush to defend China whenever a minor dispute occurs. If we consider the idea that Nepal-China relations are currently being driven by a partisan agenda rather than a cohesive national interest, the state of affairs becomes a lot more revealing.
National interest (and a closer bilateral relationship) would have demanded a similarly swift response on the issue of border closures and the thousands of containers worth of goods—and medicines—stuck for months. Unfortunately, that has not been an agenda. Instead, the current establishment’s preferential outlook towards China has resulted in the weakening of Nepali institutions, as seen in the decision to jointly announce the height of Mt Everest. The Department of Survey had been conducting its own survey for two years prior and was ready with the measurements; now, it has to wait until China is ready with the results of its own survey teams.
Further, going by our man in Beijing’s acerbic assault on the Indian media, it seems our officials will go out of their way to shield China from criticism. Some of our commentators think on similar lines. While it may be true that China has no border issues with Nepal, it does not mean that the Kathmandu establishment cannot investigate a matter in detail before rushing to Beijing’s defence. As a rising superpower in an era of global churn, China will continue to be contested in the days to come. More questions will be raised about its role not just in Nepal, but across the world. Will Nepali officials rush to defend it every time a dispute occurs, and reprimand its own employees for even flagging an issue? What sort of a message does that send to our policy of non-alignment?
The Humla episode has revealed severe weaknesses in the Nepali foreign policy outlook. I have previously argued Nepal’s turn towards China is motivated by the current establishment’s anti-Indian agenda. The ambassador’s interview makes it clear. A relationship built on such a foundation will inevitably weaken Nepal’s own bargaining power with China.