Understanding the modern Nepal-China borderDespite deepening relations, one cannot expect the northern frontier to be as open as the southern one.
Amish Raj Mulmi
Sometime in early 2000, locals in Lo Manthang were faced with an unusual sight at the Kora La border: a barb-wire fence. Kora La is not a Himalayan pass per se but a massive alpine plain that rises above the Nyichung valley and marked the traditional boundary between Mustang and Tibet, and formally demarcated in 1962. The Chinese erected the fence after the Karmapa used this route to escape from Tibet in December 1999, putting an end to all cross-border nomadism and trade (until China itself authorised an annual trade fair at the border).
Last week, after four Nepali nationals were arrested for the murder of a Chinese woman in Taklakot (or Burang), China closed off the border for all Nepalis, and sent back those who were working as labourers in this western Tibet town. While Humla district officials were aware of the action, the Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu said that it did not have ‘any specific information’ on the murder or the decision by Taklakot authorities to bar Nepali labourers. However, after the intervention of the ministry of foreign affairs and the Nepali consul general in Lhasa, Chinese authorities rescinded the order.
Since 2002, an agreement between the two nations has issued those who live within 30 km of the border a border citizens’ card that allows them to cross over without a passport and a visa and work in the two countries. This agreement was built upon earlier agreements, including the 1961 border treaty and a 1974 agreement, and the informal transnational mobility residents of the region had traditionally practised. It is under this agreement that labourers from Humla work in Taklakot.
However, this ‘blurred citizenship’ is not uniform across Nepal’s northern borders in practice. For example, Mustang locals cannot go across and work; although the closest Chinese town to the border is less than the requisite 30 km distance, the closing down of the Mustang border halted any such possibility. On the other hand, Rasuwa locals work up to a year in Gyirong, while those from Humla can work in Taklakot for six months. As such, much of the movement on the northern border is dependent on Chinese authorities and their regulations, as was visible from the recent Taklakot episode.
While several researchers have written on the mobility and sovereignty of these Himalayan ‘zomia’ regions, it is their inhabitants who are most affected by the deepening relations between China and Nepal. ‘Zomia’ is an anthropological term used to describe peripheral regions ‘whose peoples have not yet fully been incorporated into nation-states’. While it was originally used to describe the ‘South East Asian massif’, its underlying principles may well be used to describe the Himalayan regions. As anthropologist Sara Shneiderman has written, ‘For several generations, border citizens have engaged with the policies of both Nepal and China, as well as the prerogatives of the Tibetan polity, to make claims on—not evade—the multiple states that constitute the border zone in which they live.’ Essentially, the inhabitants of this region have traditionally seen themselves as belonging to both sides of the Himalayas while being notional subjects of a distant state that largely excluded them.
However, the ‘zomia-ness’ of such regions is now changing, as modern states now attempt to bring such regions under their control through instruments of state authority. While the emergence of modern state boundaries first severed the informal practices of mobility in the Himalayas, subsequent decisions—based on geopolitics, local resistance and incorporation, and the state’s prerogatives—further brought these regions under control, as is most visible in post-1950 Tibet. In the early days of Chinese presence in Tibet, historian Sulmaan Wasif Khan has argued based on Chinese sources, ‘the center lacked the capacity to enforce its will in the borderlands’. But China would harden itself from ‘empire-lite’ to strengthening control over the borderlands after the 1959 Tibet crisis, the 1962 Sino-Indian war, and the existent border dispute with India. ‘[B]ecause Tibet was such a cosmopolitan frontier, the PRC’s attempts to bolster the state’s strength would have dramatic ramifications for China’s foreign policy.’ China would view its southern frontier as one rife with peril to its national mission and grand strategies; it would exert greater control over those who earlier crossed the borders with ease, and forbid or discourage its own nationals from doing so. It became a ‘hard’ state on its southern borders. And while relations with Nepal improve, China will not loosen its stance on the frontier in the foreseeable future.
On our side of the Himalayas, regions like Mustang, Olangchung and Humla, and to a lesser extent Rasuwa, are the periphery that is slowly being integrated into the Nepali state after years of exclusion from bikas. At the same time, Kathmandu seeks to territorialise these border-regions with direct or indirect assistance from China and bring them within the national bikas narrative. The instruments of state authority are also internationalist rather than local in their nature: a dry port in Timure, a highway linking Kora La to Bhairahawa, and possibly other such inter-country linkages.
The Nepal-China border in the modern day cannot be understood without keeping these in mind. It is an erstwhile ‘fourth world’ region that is being incorporated into a modern nation-state through practices of development. Such a region was once loosely governed and largely on the periphery, but the centre now wishes to hold. At the same time, China remains concerned about its own security, and there will be more unilateral decisions that may affect Nepali citizens like in Taklakot. What does it then mean for Nepal?
It is clear that despite deepening relations, one cannot expect the Nepal–China border to be as open as its southern frontier. Freedom of movement across the border will remain a prerogative of the Chinese state and its concerns. As such, there will be moments when movement on the border will be affected, as the recent episode shows. At the same time, while the state-making project is slowly making inroads from the south, the north has begun to appeal to those on the border as a trade and employment destination. And now, China provides direct developmental assistance to 15 districts that border Tibet. There are now direct linkages between local district authorities in Nepal and China respectively, and locals have desired for more effective connectivity across the border.
The aid to the border-districts is said to be ‘demand-based’—the local authorities will forward their needs to China International Development Cooperation Agency through the Nepali consul general in Lhasa—and one can see the results, such as in Lo Manthang’s solar power plant, which was part of this aid. Then there is the other, more visible aid. In Rasuwa alone, in a stretch of around 24 km, China and/or its companies has financially and/or technically assisted in the aforementioned dry port, the 110 MW Rasuwagadhi hydroelectric plant, the recently opened ‘Friendship’ Bridge, and the Rasuwagadhi–Syabrubesi road.
While such targeted aid has been questioned by scholars on grounds whether it allows China an ‘extraterritoriality’ in Nepal, the larger infrastructural aid in the border regions also resembles the push in China’s western regions, including Tibet, through the xibu da kaifa—or ‘go west’—plan. ‘Such growth in the aid relationship between Beijing and Kathmandu also underscores how Nepali projects of bikas and concomitant processes of state making are (and expected to continue to be) underwritten by Chinese gifts of development.’
What essentially is happening on the northern border is that the Nepali state is making inroads into these former zones of exclusion with the direct or indirect assistance of the Chinese state. The exclusion of the borderlands from the national narrative of bikas has allowed Chinese aid and provisions of mobility and employment to be viewed in benevolent terms by locals. After all, the choices are few, despite new state-making projects in these regions. But such dependence on the north also leaves us vulnerable, and gives China leverage similar to India’s, especially in these districts.
Mulmi tweets at @amish973.