Indian Army Chief Manoj Mukund Naravane tried to downplay Nepal’s protest over the Lipulekh road as undertaken “at the behest of someone else.” His statement raised many eyebrows in Nepal. The Indian general was clearly hinting at China. Yet the Nepali government and the people have been as surprised by China’s silence over the issue as they have been with India’s land grab in Kalapani.
Before 2015, Nepal expected China’s active support in the resolution of the Kalapani and Lipulekh disputes. But that year India and China agreed to boost border trade via Lipulekh, without consulting Nepal. Traditionally, Nepal has seen Lipulekh as a tri-junction point between Nepal, India, and China.
The joint statement issued on 15 May 2015 during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to China says: “The two sides agreed to hold negotiations on augmenting the list of traded commodities, and expand border trade at Nathu La, Quiangla/Lipulekh pass and Shikki La.” Erstwhile Nepal government led by Nepali Congress President Sushil Koirala had immediately sent diplomatic notes to India and China, expressing its displeasure over the agreement.
China promptly responded but India remained silent. According to Foreign Ministry sources, China said that there was room for improvement, and if necessary, it was ready to revise the agreement. Many want the government to send a diplomatic note to China again.
Foreign policy experts in New Delhi reckon this is a matter purely between Nepal and India, and there is no point in dragging in China. A retired Indian diplomat, requesting anonymity, says: “The current dispute is not about fixing the tri-junction, it is about the source of Kali River. So Nepal and India should immediately sit for dialogue to seek a solution.”
Lin Minwang, Professor at Institute of International Studies at Fudan University, who closely follows China’s South Asia policy, says, “India has territorial issues with all its neighboring countries, and has always insisted on a tough position on territorial disputes, which is not conducive to a stable and peaceful environment.” On the other hand, he adds, China has resolved most of its border problems with the 14 countries with which it shares borders. Lin thinks India should learn from China’s “experience and political will” in resolving border issue with its neighbors. He says that it is ‘unwise’ of India’s high-ranking officials to imply that China is behind the current border dispute between Nepal and India.
The issue of settlement of tri-junction between Nepal, India, and China has been pending since 1963 when Nepal and China signed a border agreement. “When Nepal and China settled the boundary dispute, the relation between India and China was not cordial,” says former foreign minister Bhek Bahadur Thapa. “So the issue of tri-junction could not be settled. There was consensus that it would be settled at an appropriate time, which never came.”
Kathmandu expects China, a stakeholder in this dispute, to tell India that the new road can come into operation only after addressing Nepal’s sovereignty and territorial integrity concerns. A former Nepali diplomat says that in 2015, China overlooked the issue when it signed the agreement with India, and China will now have to speak up sooner or later.
Member of Nepal-India Eminent Persons’ Group (EPG) Surya Nath Upadhyay says that the current dispute cannot be resolved without talking to China. “As we are yet to fix the tri-junction, China’s involvement is necessary,” he says.
Political leaders are also pressing the government to talk to China. Speaking at a parliamentary committee meeting, ruling Nepal Communist Party Co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal said: “Lipulekh has emerged as a tri-lateral issue, so it is very difficult to resolve it bilaterally.”
China has not yet spoken about India’s road inauguration. However, when India put Kalapani within its territory in its new political map in November 2019, Wang Xiaolong, spokesperson at the Embassy of China in Kathmandu, had said, “The Chinese side wishes Nepal and India could resolve their territorial disputes on Kalapani through friendly consultations and negotiations.” The statement also said that China always respected the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Nepal.
There are reports that the government is preparing to hand a new protest letter to China in this regard, but a final decision on this is pending.
Missing Chinese pressure
In the past, too, Nepal had sought China’s help on the dispute. In 2005, Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs raised the issue of 2004 India-China agreement on border trade. Nepal also asked the visiting Chinese military delegation led by Major General EI Hujeng to help resolve the Kalapani dispute with India. (The armies of Nepal and China used to have top-level discussions on Kalapani and Lipulekh back in the 2000s.)
Nepal has sought the help of India too. Lipulekh Pass has been a recognized trade and pilgrim route between China and India since 1954, and there have been several agreements between them on this route.
The border dispute was removed from government agenda with the formation of Nepal-India Eminent Persons Groups (EPG) in 2016. The two governments had agreed to settle outstanding issues, including border disputes of Kalapani and Susta, in line with the EPG's recommendations. But with India’s reluctance to accept the final EPG report, things have not moved forward.
Nepal has been pressing India for talks after the latter published the political map including the Nepali territory of Kalapani within its borders in November 2019. Nepal has twice proposed foreign secretary-level talks, but India has snubbed both requests.
EPG member Upadhyay thinks that as Nepal has in the past supported China during difficult times, we should expect reciprocal support. “We should not hesitate to seek active support of China to resolve the Lipulekh dispute. Without pressure from China, India will not agree to its resolution.”