Nepal, China crucial talks today, with aim to revive mechanisms to settle boundary rowTwo countries have failed to conduct joint inspection of the border since 2011. Recent reports suggest disputes in some places, including Humla.
After a hiatus of a decade, Nepal and China are set to revive three boundary-related mechanisms so as to settle outstanding issues, if any, that have once in a while cropped up as irritants in the bilateral relations.
According to sources, senior officials from Nepal and China are holding a virtual meeting on Thursday and, if agreed upon, both sides will sign a minute to pave the way for the revival of three boundary-related mechanisms, which have remained dormant for around a decade now.
The mechanisms were enshrined in the Nepal-China Boundary Protocol signed between the two countries on January 20, 1963.
Officials told the Post that Lok Bahadur Thapa, joint secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who heads North-East Division at the ministry, and Hong Liang, director general of the Border and Ocean Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China, will lead their respective delegations at the meeting. Officials from the Department of Survey and other ministries like home, defence and commerce will also participate in the meeting.
Although there are not many issues along the Nepal-China border, a case was reported recently in Humla.
The Sher Bahadur Deuba government had formed a probe committee that had found “some issues” between Nepal and China in Humla and suggested that the government activate the boundary-related mechanisms in order to settle the dispute.
Led by then joint secretary at the Ministry of Home Affairs, Jaya Acharya, who is currently chief district officer of Kaski, the panel had made a dozen recommendations, identifying the problems along the Nepal-China border in Humla, from border pillar numbers 4 to 13.
The report, parts of which the Post has seen, stressed the need for including border issues in Nepal’s “state policy” so as to find a lasting solution.
“Such sensitive and bilateral matters related to the border need to be addressed through a permanent mechanism, but it is found that no such initiative has been taken,” states the report.
The dispute over the height of Mt Everest was settled in December 2020 when both the countries jointly announced the mountain to be 8848.86 metres tall.
Another irritant between Nepal and China is about the exact location of pillar number 57 somewhere in Dolakha district where both Nepal and China have different claims.
Although Nepal and China signed the boundary protocol in 1963, another similar agreement, Boundary Management System, was signed during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Nepal in October, 2019. Both sides have yet to do concrete homework on the new mechanism.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Sewa Lamsal confirmed the meeting but refused to provide further details saying an official statement would be issued on Thursday.
According to a senior official familiar with the matter, although the text of the Boundary Management System is yet to be out, it has envisioned forming two panels—a joint commission on boundary matters between Nepal and China, and a committee of boundary representatives to be led by competent authorities of both countries.
The joint commission on boundary matters has to be ratified by Parliament, so the Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs is working on a draft, said the official.
“Due to some technical reasons, there have been delays in getting the nod from the Chinese side,” the official added.
Since the Boundary Management System signed in 2019 has not come into force, the pre-consultation meeting on Thursday will assess and discuss the overall status of the Nepal-China border; status of boundary inspection; issue of livelihoods of people living in the bordering areas; setting up the boundary mechanism; and issues like trade, customs, ports and border points, among others, according to a Nepali official who is participating in the meeting.
A senior official at the Department of Survey said that the meeting on Thursday will discuss how to activate the boundary mechanisms, and then both sides will share the documents and will seek approval from the respective governments for moving ahead with the given mandate.
“We have already communicated our proposal to the Chinese side that we want to activate the boundary mechanisms that have remained dormant for over a decade,” said the official at the Survey Department. “They are also positive about constituting the boundary mechanisms and addressing other related issues. We are looking for some progress in this respect because we have been requesting such a meeting for the last two years.”
The 1963 Joint Boundary Protocol has the provision of constituting three different mechanisms to deal with boundary issues—Joint Inspection Team, Joint Expert Group, and Joint Inspection Committee.
“During the virtual meeting on Thursday, our proposal will be to revive these boundary mechanisms in order to inspect and update the Nepal-China border that has stopped since 2011,” the senior official told the Post.
The Joint Inspection Team will be led by Thapa, joint secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Hong, director general of China’s Border and Ocean Affairs. The Joint Expert Group will be led by the director general of the Department of Survey from the Nepali side and their Chinese counterpart. The Joint Inspection Committee will be led by deputy director general or under secretary from the Department of Survey and their Chinese counterpart, as per the practice and provisions.
The Nepali side, during the official visit of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who is also the State Councillor of China, in March, had proposed forming a mechanism in order to conduct joint inspection of the border and update the latest status.
The Nepal-China border spans 1,439 kilometres.
The two countries signed the last (third) boundary protocol in 1988. They then constituted the three mechanisms in 2006 which worked until 2011, according to relevant officials.
As per the boundary protocol, Nepal and China have to conduct joint boundary inspections every 10 years. After signing the protocol in 1963 which followed the signing of the Nepal-China Border Treaty in 1961, the two countries have signed such protocols again in 1979 and 1988.
When both sides were ready to sign the fourth protocol in 2011, the Nepali team was all set to visit China, but the trip was cancelled in the last hour after a dispute over pillar number 57 could not be settled.
Since then Nepal and China have failed to conduct joint inspection of the border and update the status of the boundary, a prerequisite for signing the boundary protocol.
Experts say it was already too late to hold such a meeting and welcomed the scheduled talks as such dialogues will help settle the boundary disputes with the northern neighbour.
According to them, both sides should have shown urgency to hold the meeting as the last joint inspection was held a decade ago and in recent times, reports have suggested there are some serious issues along the border with the north.
“Why had our officials not raised boundary matters with China?” said Buddhi Narayan Shrestha, a noted cartographer and former director general of the Department of Survey. “We should activate those mechanisms in order to settle the boundary row with China.”
According to Shrestha, there are issues in Humla, Gorkha and in Kimathanaka of Sankhuwasabha along the Nepal-China border.
“The government should activate the relevant boundary mechanisms and start joint inspection in order to settle the row as well as update the status of the northern border. Officials of the mechanisms should visit each northern district with a map and hold talks with political leaders, the people and administration of the respective districts,” said Shrestha. “Locals living in the bordering areas should be convinced that there are no disputes along the border. Their role is key on boundary matters, as they are the ultimate beneficiaries and sufferers.”
Boundary issues with China surface in Nepal once in a while but different governments have treated the matter differently. After media reports in September 2020 said China “is illegally constructing nine buildings inside the Nepali territory,” then foreign minister Pradip Gyawali refuted the claims immediately.
The Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu also had said that there were no boundary issues between Nepal and China.
Leela Mani Poudyal, a former ambassador to China, said that he does not know that much about disputes between Nepal and China except the one regarding pillar number 57.
“When the joint boundary inspection was happening and verification was taking place in 2005, I was in Humla. At that time, there was no dispute in Humla. But it was made controversial. When we were all set to send a team to China for signing the fourth protocol in 2011 as per the directive of then prime minister [Baburam Bhattarai], the Nepali team could not visit China,” Poudyal, also a former chief secretary and served as consul general in Lhasa, told the Post. “Besides boundary issues, we have several other agreements with China like cross-border grazing, issue of wildlife and Chinese assistance to 15 northern districts, among others. In order to address these issues, both sides should have regular engagements.”