A country’s borders have a certain sanctity. Boundary disputes are thus tricky, more so in the age of social media, and online news outlets on a constantly chasing eyeballs. These disputes become trickier still when they involve more than two countries, as with the dispute over the Lipulekh Pass, the purported tri-junction point between Nepal, India, and China. Then there is the older bilateral dispute between Nepal and India over Lipulekh’s abutting region of Kalapani.
Nepal has made its position crystal clear with the publication of a new national map that includes all 372 square kilometers of the ‘disputed territories’. To be fair, the Nepali government was forced into it by Indian Army Chief M.M. Naravane’s statement that Nepal had protested over India’s construction of the new road at Lipulekh ‘at China’s behest’. His statement came even as Nepal was requesting formal talks to resolve the dispute. In fact, just like it did with India, Nepal had also sought clarification with China over the issue, asking Beijing why it was mum even as India was ‘unilaterally’ building a road at Lipulekh.
Following the uproar in Nepal, officials in Beijing have replied, according to PM KP Oli that “…the India-China agreement was about expanding an old trade route for pilgrimage purposes, and it won’t affect the position of the tri-juncture and issue of borders.” Separately, Zhao Lijian, spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said that Kalapani was a ‘bilateral’ issue between Nepal and India, and China hoped “the two countries will resolve their differences properly through friendly consultations and refrain from taking any unilateral action that may complicate the situation.”
This suggests that Beijing still thinks Lipulekh is a ‘tri-junction’ point and it will look to accommodate Nepal in the current India-China bilateral arrangement. As far as Kalapani goes, it is completely up to Nepal and India to settle it between them. But with the publication of Nepal’s new map, the trilateral point, if there is to be one, has to perforce shift to Limpiadhura, at the origin of Kali River. In this sense, Nepal has upped the ante.
The good news is that India has not shut the door for dialogue. Nor has Nepal. Ultimately, there is no option but for the two countries to engage at the highest level. There is no reason Nepal cannot address India’s security concerns over Kalapani, perhaps with the deployment of Nepal's own military or paramilitary forces. Or perhaps a joint India-Nepal mechanism is a better way out. Likewise, everyone benefits if the region can be opened for trilateral trade. But that is for later. To start, Nepal and India must agree to unconditional talks at the highest level. Further delays and proxy battles could do irreparable damage to India-Nepal relations.