The current Kalapani border dispute is only incidental in a greater design to destabilise New Delhi's ties with its neighbours
In 2014, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Nepal, many South Asia watchers anticipated rekindling of a lacklustre bilateral relationship that did not seem to have found its rightful place in New Delhi's strategic priorities. Modi's visit, then for the first time in 17 years by an Indian PM, concluded on an upbeat note with promises of ‘H-I-T — highways, infoways and transways’ as the primary areas of cooperation with the Himalayan nation.
Unfortunately, within a year the ties between the two neighbours was hit by a slew of setbacks, with the economic blockade of 2015 being the biggest blow.
To keep the outreach alive, Modi followed his first visit with two more in the course of which he laid the foundation stone for the 900 MW Arun III project in Sankhuwasabha district of eastern Nepal, and the Raxaul (Bihar)-Kathmandu rail link.
This bonhomie too was short-lived when after the demarcation of the new union territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh in November, India published a restructured map that represented Kalapani as part of Uttarakhand. This sparked protests from Nepal which claims Kalapani — sitting at the tri-junction between Indian, Nepalese and Chinese borders — its own.
The recent unveiling of the 75-km long Kailash Mansarovar road link that passes through Lipulekh, near Kalapani, further added to the disquiet.
This constant effort towards thawing a cold relationship only to be foiled by more differences indicate how India's Nepal policy has been led by surprises. The bilateral ties seem to lack an intentional deliberation for specific outcomes. This also is a fissure that China has been using to its advantage.
During the 17-year lull between India and Nepal, Beijing stepped up its engagement with Kathmandu through massive investments. After the 2015 India-Nepal rift, China amplified its political and economic investments in Nepal.
In October, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a two-day visit to Nepal, becoming the first Chinese President in more than two decades to visit Nepal. The bilateral meetings led to the inking of significant deals including a rail link connecting Tibet with Kathmandu. A road tunnel, which would bring Kathmandu and the Chinese border closer, was also proposed. The Nepal-China Transit protocol signed last year counters the India-Nepal international trade interest.
At the backdrop of Beijing's current diplomatic setback at the global fora, China will intensify its offensive in both the Pacific and Indian Ocean to project its power. There have been reports of Beijing augmenting its manoeuvres in the South China Sea where a Chinese government research ship is said to have conducted a survey near Malaysia's Petronas-operated West Capella. This has sparked concern among the neighbouring Southeast Asian countries.
In the Indian Ocean, the spot for China's power projection will be South Asia, especially in Nepal, which is still within the influence of India. India's recent decisions around Article 370, steps to increase border security, a bigger defense budget, and a growing influence in Northeast India, has earned New Delhi an image of assertiveness among its South Asian neighbours. This has Beijing taking notice as any gain in India's image will be counterproductive to furthering its own influence in South Asia.
The current row over the Kalapani border dispute is only incidental in a greater design to destabilise New Delhi's ties with its neighbours.
While India should be wary of the security implications of these designs, it should also remain focused on intensifying its neighbourhood first policy. One of the weaknesses of this policy is the deficit between promise and outcome. A concerted grievance that Kathmandu has had about India-led projects is its delayed delivery — a gap that created the current space for Beijing. India needs to expedite its project completion time. A good starting point would be keeping up to the 2021 deadline of the Patna-Kathmandu rail link.
A second lever that India should not allow to slip through the crack is public opinion of the people of Nepal. We remain connected culturally — a void that China or any nation outside the region will take a long time to fill. We should intensify people-to-people exchanges especially among the younger citizens. India should stay committed to its support for inclusion of the Madhesis in Nepal's political framework, which is a just and fair demand affirming India's commitment towards creating a more inclusive world.
Jhinuk Chowdhury is a communications professional with interest in South Asian affairs. Twitter: @jhinuk28. Views are personal.