In May 2015, China and India signed an agreement to augment border trade via the Nepali territory of Lipulekh Pass. This was done during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to China. Nepal, a Landlocked Least Developed Country (LLDC), was a mere spectator.
Last week, India’s Minister of Defense Rajnath Singh inaugurated an 80-km-long strategic road from Dharchula (Uttarakhand) to Lipulekh, which will serve as the shortest route to Kailash-Mansarobar from New Delhi. Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) issued a press release ‘regretting’ the inauguration.
India has been deploying its Indo-Tibet Border Police (ITBP) force at Kalapani since 1962, something Nepal has termed an action against the letter and spirit of Sugauli Treaty (1861). In the past 60 years, Nepal’s economic development has progressed at a snail’s pace and the country has lacked an ability to maintain an assertive neighborhood policy with its two giant neighbors.
Beijing enthusiastically welcomed Modi in May 2015, calling him ‘Indian Nixon’, sparking hope of greater collaboration between the two giants. But it was disheartening for Nepalis as the ‘Indian Nixon’ was violating Nepal’s sovereignty by signing a controversial agreement with China without Nepal’s involvement.
Haidian district in Beijing, which hosts three world-class universities—Tsinghua, Peking and Renmin—is undoubtedly the most vibrant intellectual hotspot of China. A huge number of Nobel laureates and global leaders visit Haidian on a daily basis to deliver lectures and take classes in these universities. The area is full of debates on China’s past, present and future, including Chinese President Xi Jinping’s potential as ‘China’s Mikhail Gorbachev’.
I brought up the painful topic of the 2015 Joint Statement during one of those debates. The statement had clearly violated Nepal’s sovereignty, and I was disturbed by the actions of our two neighbors. In the end, I and some other friends of Nepal decided to recommend to the Nepali Embassy in China hosting of high-level forums that discussed important topics for Nepal, most importantly those concerning its sovereignty.
Informally, I was told that the Nepali embassies around the world are short of cash to host such forums. “It costs a lot to host such events in Beijing and we don’t have the money,” shared a Beijing-based senior Nepali diplomat. “When we are perpetual guests at tables hosted by other countries, how can we assert our own issues?” he questioned.
Moreover, Nepal rarely appoints ambassadors on merit basis, and that is where the issue gets worse. These ambassadors cannot convince or fight with the MoFA for funds. The flip side is, even the financial resources in the basket of these embassies are poorly managed.
This issue is largely linked to the country’s state capacity. “If the Nepalese government cannot increase state capacity, the state itself could gradually dissolve,” wrote Robert D. Kaplan in his influential book, The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate’ (2011). He further writes that China and India could play a new version of the Great Game in the Himalayas.
The only way to manage these Great Game players is to increase our capacity both in economic and military terms. Nepal needs to be economically powerful to give its embassies enough funds for incidental expenditure. Had the Embassy of Nepal in China raised the issue of Lipulekh in Beijing’s high tables in 2015, who knows, perhaps China would have been more careful about stepping on Nepal’s sensitivities in the future.
Nepal saw 15 different prime ministers and 40 governments in the past six decades. But the issue of Kalapani remains unsolved and the country’s economic stagnation continues. This can be attributed among other things to the tendency of our leaders to seek personal favors from abroad, particularly India.
A poor and politically unstable Nepal has only one option out of this three-dimensional problem. That is to enhance its economic power by making its people the most wanted consumers of Indian and Chinese goods. “Above all a pragmatist” when dealing with stronger powers, as Machiavelli would advise. The most pragmatic way is to build a country of 30 million indispensable consumers. If we have to make a small investment for this, for instance in hosting important discussions and debates abroad, it will be well worth it.