Top Nepali government officials, including the deputy prime minister and the foreign minister, are unhappy with India. They have a problem with India’s ‘underhand approach’ in dealing with India-based Nepali migrant workers now headed for Nepal. When India is under an official lockdown, and all long-distance travel has been forbidden, why is it allowing thousands of Nepali migrants to travel to the Indo-Nepal border? This reminds many Nepali officials of the refugee crisis back in the 1990s, when India gave a safe passage into Nepal to 100,000 Nepali-speaking Bhutanese nationals.
Yet there is a fundamental difference in the Bhutanese refugee crisis and what is happening right now. India undoubtedly played a dubious role in the refugee crisis. Given its vast sway over the Bhutanese government, it could have put pressure on Thimpu to stop ethnic violence against the Nepali-speaking Lhotshampas and to adjust them peacefully. It didn’t. Right now, it is the case of Nepali citizens wanting to come back to their country, which they have every right to do. It is also hard to accuse the Indian government of bad intent when India is itself struggling to stop the massive movements of people inside its own borders.
The traditionally checkered relations between India and Nepal, and especially the 2015-16 blockade, makes Nepalis deeply mistrust New Delhi. As Kathmandu has of late enhanced its ties with Beijing, the government in Nepal has also been rather bold in its anti-India proclamations. Yet, at its root, what the recent problem between India and Nepal highlights is the depth in their relations, which may have both positive as well as negative consequences.
India is very familiar to most Nepalis, which makes them think they understand the country: its strengths, its weaknesses, and its compulsions. We may not all like the Indians, but familiarity builds a level of trust. It is hard for us to similarly view the Chinese whose ways of life can seem alien. Incidents like the supply of substandard anti-corona kits further tarnishes China’s image here. Could the Chinese government have ensured only the best kits were sent to Nepal? Perhaps.
I don’t think China had a malicious intent, though. More likely, there was a gap in communication between the two sides, something that has long been a salient feature of Nepal-China relations. The Nepali side says it wants something, the Chinese think the Nepalis are asking for something else, and the outcome is a disaster. Only in few years have there been real efforts to understand the Chinese—and trust is not something you can build overnight.
When the corona pandemic is over, there is likely to be considerable global backlash against China for its mishandling of the Wuhan crisis. This backlash will often border on xenophobia. Both the governments of Nepal and China have to be mindful that this xenophobia is kept in check. Nothing right now is more important than opening up more lines of communication between the two countries, and to minimize disinformation. Nepal-China ties can never be comparable to Nepal-India ties. But there is no reason we cannot better understand China.