Sabre-rattling in the HimalayasNepal should develop a policy that addresses the interests of China and India while protecting its own interests first
The recent rise in tensions between China and India over Doklam has reawakened discussions on this long-standing issue. Public statements made by Indian and Chinese leaders, the media, and intellectuals over the standoff reflect the level of rivalry. Indian policy is directed towards East, Central and West Asia, while China is connecting continents with the Belt and Road Initiative. The treaties and agreements between India and China go back to historical times, ranging from the 1890 Anglo-China Agreement on Sikkim and Tibet to the latest 2013 Border Defence Cooperation Agreement. Treaties with Bhutan and Nepal, like the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship between India and Nepal and the 2007 revised friendship treaty between India and Bhutan are also relevant.
Japan, India, China, South Korea and Asean countries are emerging as world growth centres, more than six decades after the end of colonialism in Asia. New connections are being shaped and old ones redrawn by the big powers to meet their own strategic needs. Sikkim’s merger with India in 1975 is one example. Bhutan’s defence and diplomacy being assured by India is another. Nepal’s Maoist conflict ended with the 12-point agreement that affirmed major changes in Nepal. The country was transformed into a secular and federal republic. The standoff at Doklam, strategically situated at the tri-junction of Bhutan, China and India, is less significant, but accepting the larger strategic game changer is imperative for smaller states like Nepal to move towards prosperity and stability.
Two emerging powers
After the 1940s, both China and India faced challenges of the rich getting richer and the rise of the poor; border disputes resulting in three conflicts; trade imbalance in favour of China; China’s strategic relations with Pakistan; concerns of the Indian military; economic activities in the South China Sea; and terrorism. China is going through a transition. It was a majestic world economic power till 2008, but it is no longer so as its exports have fallen and social concerns have emerged. India is growing at a fast pace. Now, both countries have to legitimise their strength by showing they are powerful; they have to make minimal moves around their frontiers for internal reasons.
China is also concerned with gaining access to the Indian Ocean, therefore showing that, apart from political agendas, geopolitics is also a key concern.These are natural movements of great powers against each other. China is India’s largest trading partner. Both countries have concentrated on their internal transformation, and they have been the greatest beneficiaries of the end of the Cold War and the security order led by the US. Second, the US enabled China’s rise through this period as it became integrated with the global order. It is more likely to become like the West economically, politically and militarily as an actor on the international stage. Third, China’s rise marked the rise of Asia and the Chinese arms build-up. China led the way followed by Malaysia, India, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam and others. Despite having the most boundary disputes in the world between them, the border between China and India has been relatively calm.
The perceived encircling of both China and India is a factor, with India being encircled by the String of Pearls and China being encircled by the US, India and their allies. Tensions between the US and Russia are on the rise once more despite a flurry of diplomatic activity between Moscow and Washington in recent weeks. Russia’s policy towards South Asia has been a topic of much conjecture recently. It is becoming more and more obvious that Russia is moving away from its India-centric approach in the region.
The real issue is geography; getting to either side of the Himalayan Ranges is significant to both China and India as the balance of power will shift. Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan play significant roles in this geopolitical game. The wall is the Himalaya and getting across is important for both. The Chinese are working to cross the Himalaya and push southwards to the sea. Even if this is not possible now, it surely will be in the next five decades. The Indian Ocean is significant for regional and trans-regional outreach for China. The South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca and associated maritime infrastructure such as naval launch pads play an important role in the development of the 21st century Maritime Silk Road initiative to promote its geo-political, geo-economic and geo-strategic interests.
Cooperation key to harness resources
In recent years, fear of China’s moves in the east and the South China Sea was the leading catalyst for the noteworthy presence of the US armed forces and the freedom of navigation operation near contested islands off the Philippines and Vietnam. Natural resources are at the centre of various Asian conflicts. The East China Sea is the centre of conflict between China and Japan due to its immense hydrocarbon resources. All except one of Asia’s major river systems originate in Tibet. Yet, Asia’s per capita fresh water availability is not even half the global average. Water in the 21st century will become what oil was in the 20th century, a source of both wealth and conflict.
The primary outlook on Sino-Indian relations is the impression that two rising powers with rapidly growing economies and global ambitions cannot coexist peacefully since the area of interest and persuasion extends beyond competition, as in the case of Nepal and other bordering states. As for hostility, whoever is on the defence is going to be stronger as it is extremely difficult to conduct military actions in the Himalayan region. Maintaining supply lines across hostile environments will be easier said than done for both countries regardless of whether they move south or north of their existing border.
China and India must recognise that war and making peace are two different things; precious lessons can be drawn from previous wars. A diplomatic approach must take precedence, if not, a void between country relations can come into sight. Foresight is desirable to stay away from such a scenario. China or India may win the war, but they may also lose control of the peace. As a result, Nepal should develop a policy that addresses the interests of both countries and keeps its own interest at the core, because potential conflict between the two nuclear powers could throw Nepal and the region into chaos.
Basnyat is a retired Army Major General, he holds an MPhil degree and is a political and security analyst