Recent developments in the Lipulekh pass of the Kalapani region give a message of intent, and not just of India. China too has shown it is not ready to compromise its multifaceted relations with India for Nepal’s benefit. Moreover, Xi Jinping has a soft spot for Tibet: His late father, Xi Zhongxun, was a great friend of the 14th Dalai Lama. Xi Jr. is thus keen on Tibet’s development, which he reckons is possible only with India’s help. This is why he has over the years quietly pushed for the opening of the ‘bilateral’ India-china trade route via Lipulekh.
And now Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh has seen it fit to ‘inaugurate’ the ‘shortest route to Mansarover’ in the middle of a pandemic. A seasoned Nepali foreign policy analyst who has worked extensively in both India and China speculates the inauguration is a subtle message to the Oli government. First, India brokered the unity between the two Madhesi parties against Oli’s wishes. By bringing up Lipulekh even as the Nepali government struggles with the corona crisis, India is now dialing up pressure on him: pressure to distance himself from China.
If Oli gets the message, perhaps the Indians will be amenable to a three-country solution over the Lipulekh route. If not, India will further consolidate its position in Kalapani and even seek additional leverage against Oli. But whatever happens to Nepal’s concerns over Lipulekh, the larger picture doesn’t change: Modi and Xi want to keep the two countries’ trade relations intact at any cost. They know they need each other if they are to successfully tide over the ongoing global economic crisis.
A settlement over Kalapani is not impossible. The region is not as important to India as it was, say, in 1962, when it lost the infamous border war to China. Chinese movements in the region can now be monitored remotely, via satellites or drones; India does not need troops on the ground. This is not to imply Kalapani has lost all its strategic value for India, just that its usefulness has gone down. Yet New Delhi would like Kathmandu to believe that the region is still mighty important for it and that there won’t be easy compromises.
Again, China is not ready to pick a fight with India over Lipulekh or Kalapani. As we saw in Doklam in 2017, these border disputes have many hidden subtexts. The way the Doklam crisis unfolded also showed how hard it is to change the status quo on the border. As Sam Cowen has pointed out, Nepal will struggle to establish its claim over Kalapani as successive Nepali governments ignored the issue for their vested interests, even as India progressively tightened its grip over the region.
One of two outcomes is likely. India will either continue to engage with Nepal on Lipulekh but it won’t commit to anything, further frustrating Kathmandu. Or, if PM KP Oli is ready to shed his ‘pro-China’ mien, the Indians could help him buttress his image via some concession over the disputed territory. Nepal has limited options. It could try to Internationalize Kalapani. But it is hard to see what that will achieve. Such a move is sure to further fuel India’s ire against Kathmandu. Nor will China be too pleased to be dragged into international arbitration by the government it helped shape.