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Nepal’s neutrality in India-China conflict

Nepal’s neutrality in India-China conflict

‘Neutrality’, ‘nonalignment’, ‘amity with all, enmity with none’—what is there not to like about the Oli government’s key foreign policy tenets? But they mean little. Historically, while Nepal has professed strict nonalignment, it has repeatedly tilted between India and China. India, one of the leaders of the nonaligned movement, acted as all but a formal Soviet ally until the collapse of the USSR. China too openly flirted with the Soviets before shifting its allegiance to the US in early 1970s. Now, on the face of a hostile America, China-Russia rapprochement is again reaching new heights. 

At present Nepal’s foreign policy exhibits a clear China tilt, as evidenced by its backing of the latest Chinese crackdown in Hong Kong, and the CCP’s lockdown-time political training of its ruling party leaders. Indian Army chief M.M. Naravane was wrong to infer that Nepal took up Kalapani at China’s behest. But in the Indian eyes he only said what seemed most logical in light of the India-China border tensions. 

Talking to APEX, both Indian and Chinese strategic thinkers said their countries could ask Nepal to clarify its allegiance in the event of an India-China war. While India would seek Nepal’s backing based on the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship, China is likely to invoke Nepal’s BRI membership to do so. Again, the easy way out for Nepal would be to profess its continued neutrality, come what may. But as tensions mount that fiction will get progressively harder to maintain.

There is zero trust in KP Oli in New Delhi. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s henchmen who deal with Nepal have ruled out meaningful talks so long as Oli is in power. The beleaguered Nepali prime minister may see his labeling as ‘pro-China’ cruel just when the Chinese are losing trust in him over his backing of theMCC compact, which Beijing wants Nepal to ditch. 

If Oli remains in power, India will continue to label him pro-China and refuse to talk. As the status quo in Kalapani suits it just fine, India will have no incentive to discuss border dispute. Luckily for New Delhi, Oli, in a last-ditch effort to save his chair, seems minded to throw his country into another political turmoil. If he splits the ruling party, India could once again get to shape the new government in Kathmandu to its liking, much to Beijing’s chagrin. This is why China is more amenable to the option of Oli quietly handing over power to someone else in the NCP. More likely, Oli will put up a dogged fight and use every trick in the book to hang on.

The Covid-19 crisis and escalating India-China tensions will have all kinds of unforeseeable consequences for Nepal. If India and China start firing on one another, the 40,000 Nepali or Nepali-origin Gurkha soldiers will be on the frontline. When they return to the country in body bags, the pressure to end Gurkha recruitment will grow, to further detriment of India-Nepal ties. Perhaps the government considers an unstated alignment with a stronger power a safer bet. But if India ‘loses’ the war, dealing with the wounded elephant would be a herculean challenge as well. 

Right now, Nepal is relatively autonomous to profess its neutrality and nonalignment. Tomorrow, the question of its autonomous status may be rendered moot if neither India nor China trusts the Nepali leadership to secure its interests.