Carefully balancing the influence of its two giant neighbors has been Nepal’s guiding foreign policy principle since the reign of Prithvi Narayan Shah. This has never been easy. The British India government or the Qing emperors, each wanted the small landlocked state to serve only its interests. This expectation remains more or less intact. As India-China ties take a nosedive, Nepal could once again find itself in the unenviable position of being asked to choose between its two equally indispensable neighbors.
This is not idle speculation. There have been similar expectations in the past. Officially, “Nepal is confident that both the neighboring countries will resolve, in the spirit of good neighborliness, their mutual differences through peaceful means in favor of bilateral, regional and world peace and stability.”
But that is not how folks in New Delhi or Beijing see it. “Nepal has to take a clear position on whether to stay neutral or take a side,” says Nihar R Nayak, a Delhi-based expert on Nepal-India ties. He says that as per the 1950 treaty, India could inform Nepal about its tensions with China and may seek its support.
Lin Minwang, Professor at Institute of International Studies at Fudan University, and deputy director of the university’s Institute of South Asia Studies, says “India’s violation of the territorial sovereignty of China and Nepal has given China and Nepal a common strategic interest on this issue.” Therefore, China and Nepal should support each other in this process, whether this support is “direct or indirect, public or private.”
Nepali geopolitical analyst Tika Dhakal differs. “Nepal has historically taken a neutral, non-aligned position between the two neighbors. One aspect of Nepal’s unique positioning in the South Asian region is its role as a buffer between India and China,” he says. “Continuation of this policy is important to ensure perpetual peace in Nepal as well as in the region.” Nonetheless, Dhakal too does not rule out added pressure on Nepal to take sides.
Another issue dividing public opinion in Nepal is the MCC compact, the American grant program. The compact is in limbo after the latest parliamentary session that ended June 2 failed to endorse it. China is against Nepal’s endorsement of the compact, as it sees it as a part of the Indo-Pacific Strategy that aims to contain its rise. As India-China tensions worsen, India may pursue its interests in Nepal in concert with the US, further complicating things for Kathmandu.
The Oli government has only itself to blame for its current pro-China image, at least outside the country. There was no need for Nepal to hail China’s aggression in Hong Kong, or for the ruling party leaders to take part in a ‘training session’ with the CCP leaders—not when India and China were on the brink of war. History suggests Nepal cannot afford to so heavily rely on one of its neighbors, almost to the exclusion of the other. If unnatural proximity to India is dangerous, so is the NCP’s current love affair with China. Astute heads will be needed to pull Nepal out of the geostrategic quagmire it finds itself in.