Many smaller countries entering into a long-term politico-economic agreement with China have come to grief.
After Nepal’s last-minute decision to pull out of the India-devised military drills of the seven-nation Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sector Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec) in Pune (September 10-17), there is not much left to the imagination. It’s plain to see what’s happening in India-Nepal ties. Kathmandu is clearly making a calibrated attempt to rework its foreign, economic and defence policies away from its earlier moorings in India to one that privileges China in an open, unhesitant, attempt to balance New Delhi.
A more proximate relationship with China poses obvious practical difficulties — one of massive physical distances. Kathmandu announced, as it sent a negative message to New Delhi over Bimstec military drills, that Beijing was making available four of its seaports and two dry ports for the transit of Nepal’s international trade. This is a process over which India has always had a monopoly.
For Nepal, the nearest Chinese port is some 2,600 km away, unlike Indian ports. So there must be something attractive about the Chinese offer. The ports seem part of a wider infrastructure package that includes building a road between the two nations through Tibet.
Many smaller countries entering into a long-term politico-economic agreement with China have come to grief. Sri Lanka is one example. Malaysia cancelled ongoing projects. For now, however, Nepal (from the RSS-BJP’s analytical prism, we can say “Hindu Nepal”) has placed more trust in China than in India.
New Delhi does need to introspect. Was the 2015 blockade of Nepal (although India itself wasn’t involved) by Nepal’s Madhesi interests — who’re seen as pro-Indian — the cause of mistrust for Nepal PM K.P. Sharma Oli, who is widely thought to be inclined toward China?
India should also see why military drills were at all needed for Bimstec (Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal). If the concern was anti-terrorism, which is one of Bimstec’s 14 focus areas along with economic development indicators, this could have been addressed otherwise. It doesn’t appear India had prepared the ground politically for all Bimstec nations to readily accept military exercises with India as part of the forum.
Nepal seemed to be signalling that while economic and technical cooperation within the Bimstec framework was fine, being a part of an India-driven military effort was not kosher while Kathmandu was wooing Beijing.
It’s also feasible that Nepal’s last-minute withdrawal from the Pune exercises was instigated by Beijing. That puts an even worse construction on relations between India and Nepal. It’s of interest that while Kathmandu was busy saying “nyet” to the seven-nation military exercises mooted by India, it was announcing its participation in a military drill with China, a process that had begun a year ago.