China dare not invade India, Nepal views Doklam

Published: August 16, 2017 - 13:24 Updated: August 16, 2017 - 13:29

Nepalese still have harrowing memories of the damage that the 1962 war between China and India caused them. They do not want the Doklam stand-off to spin out of control

“If two elephants fight, the grass underneath them will get crushed. If the same elephants make love, even in their bonhomie, the grass will get crushed,” says Hari Sharma, an eminent political scientist and author. Politicians and foreign policy analysts alike have repeatedly used the same analogy to outline the costs of an India-China war for Nepal. If the tensions persist or aggravate between its two neighbours, there is a chance that the fallout will spill over from Bhutan to Nepal. The Kathmandu-elite is watching the events unfolding in Bhutan with eyes peeled.

Nepal has been on fire before because of war between India and China in 1962. “Smaller countries might be affected the worst, they might be swallowed in such a war,” explains Madhesi activist CK Lal to Hardnews. Some liken the Dokalam face-off with Nepal's Lipulekh pass and what happened during India's China war. In 1962, when the war between India and China came to an end, Lipulekh pass, which connects India and China through Nepal, became contested territory. India positioned troops to guard the pass, which raised a howl of protests from the Himalayan country. Nepali diplomats went through India Office Records at The British Library in London to find evidence to establish their ownership over the territory. The chorus over the Lipulekh issue can be heard once again in the Nepali media. Newspaper editorials are cautioning Nepalese public of the dire consequences of war and how the interests of small nations usually get ignored even in the times of peace. As it happened in 2015 when India and China, in a time of better relations, decided to increase trade through the Lipulekh pass.

An aide to the former Nepali Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai explained to Hardnews that there were two types of people watching the face-off and the subsequent skirmishes in Doklam: “The first, like the western countries, are seeing it with curiosity and the second type, which includes Nepali people and others in neighbourhood, are watching it with trepidation.”

Dipak Gyawali, former water resource minister of Nepal, says that China, in recent years, has been wary of the West, and now India seems to be toeing the line of the western countries. He says China does not want to fight India and even earlier China had tried to wrench India away from the US’ influence. “In 2008-09, around the time the nuclear deal was struck between India and the US, the then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao stopped over in Nepal for twenty-two hours, attempting to persuade India from signing the Nuclear Deal,” remarks Gyawali.

“The fight between China and India would be disastrous for both the countries. I hope China and India don’t fight. There is too much at stake for China, they need the Indian market and can’t risk a war", explained a commentator. According to him, Chinese efforts to build road and rail connectivity in Nepal are to reach the Indian market by a shorter route. “If they want actual development in Nepal, why are they not building rail connectivity east-to-west? Or in the Terai region? ” This sentiment is echoed through many parts of the city.

“There won’t be a fight between India and China, or there shouldn’t be. If there is one, the costs for Nepal will be too high,” says Laxman Ghimire, water minister of Nepal from1991 to 93. If both India and China are consumed by war the need for security might impose another blockade. This potential blockade may have a debilitating consequence for the Nepali society, he says. The 2015 blockade is etched into the psyche of the political class and the average Nepalis alike. They now see India, not as a long trusted ally but a boorish, temperamental, interfering neighbour who no longer plays the tune of the country’s establishment. 

Using Doklam

While Nepal’s Foreign Minister Krishna Bahadur Mahara said on Monday that Nepal will maintain a neutral stand and not take sides between India and China. There are people who are using the Doklam stand-off as a bargaining chip with India. According to CK Lal, especially after 2015, nationalism according to the Kathmandu Elite is ‘Anti-India’. It is needless to say that the five-month-long Madhesi blockade of 2015 not only antagonised the people of Nepal but pushed them further away and closer to their neighbour in the north, who wasted no time in sending a train to Gyirong port with essential supplies. While the gesture on China’s part was more ‘symbolic’, it helped prop up a new form of nationalism which is now synonymous with anti-India. "We didn’t bow down to India for those five months, neither did we succumb to China,” stresses a Nepali taxi driver. The new nationalism put forward in Nepal has many takers. This growing chorus is affecting the way both politicians and civil society commentators are looking at Doklam. “Very few countries will support India openly,” says Kapil Shrestha, a member of Nepal’s election observation committee, a human rights expert and political science professor at Tribhuvan University. “It would be interesting to see how India would counter the Chinese aggression,” he continued. India’s entry into war with China also holds something else —if India fights so does Nepal by proxy. There are 39 battalions fighting for the Indian Army under seven Gorkha regiments. This has also upped the stake of the involvement of the Nepalese in this conflict. However, what is intriguing the Nepalese more is the way the Gorkhaland agitation is unfolding in Darjeeling.

Rajan Bhattarai, Member of Parliament with the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), in a conversation with Hardnews said that his party hopes that the two countries resolve the issue, “We don’t like seeing the region thrown into conflict, and we support peace in the region. Both countries must come together.”

Former ambassador to India, Bekh Bahadur Thapa told Hardnews that, “Nepal is just trying to ensure that it does not get caught in the cross fire between the two countries.” The neutrality that Nepal seeks can be seen as a matter of self-interest. “It is time for Nepal to look out for itself, and try to take the best from both countries,” says a local shopkeeper. How plausible and possible that scenario might be, the call for peace is absolutely necessary for Nepal, much like Bhutan it has too much at stake. Chinese presence has increased substantially; a growth in Foreign Direct Investment, participation in infrastructure building and lastly the inclusion into the Belt and Road Initiative. China's growing presence in the Himalayan country has irked India.  But at this point, it’s the Nepalese public itself that is the strongest resistance to Chinese expansion. There is much paranoia spreading through Nepal regarding the Kalapani threat, they don't want to be the next Bhutan and have their sovereignty compromised.

Abeer Kapoor is a reporter, data visualiser and his interests are agrarian issues, politics and foreign policy. He has a masters in development studies and loves food

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This story is from print issue of HardNews