Into the dragon’s embrace again
News analysis

Into the dragon’s embrace again

S. Sivadas

Despite the Prime Minister making three visits to Kathmandu and despite his having all neighbouring countries’ leaders invited for his swearing in ceremony in New Delhi  when he took over four years ago, Nepal does  seem to have an ambivalent attitude to India. Sri Lanka and even Maldives also seem to be more besotted by China’s charm offensive rather than these gestures of India. They do not seem to be able to shrug off the dragon’s embrace.

The growing profile and role of China in South Asia is of late becoming more prominent, with Beijing making unprecedented penetration in the region such as Sri Lanka and Maldives. Despite caught up in a debt-trap diplomacy to the point of being forced to lease the Hambantota Port to China for 99 years, Sri Lanka does not appear to have learned any lessons, Colombo has gone back to China for more funds to address its next debt repayment cycle in 2019.

Nepal was granted access to Chinese land and sea ports just a few ago, signalling its dependence on Indian ports.This is just one of several steps within the bilateral relationship, but it deserves attention for its wider significance.

Kathmandu and Beijing had signed a Transit and Transport Agreement (TTA) in March 2016 that promised to provide it access for third party trade through Chinese sea and land ports. Till now, Nepal had to use trade through Kolkata and Bangladesh. Now the new protocol allows Nepal access and use of four Chinese sea ports, Tianjin, Shenzhen, Lianyungang, and Zhanjiang, and three dry ports. With this, said the Nepal official, ‘Now we have access to additional ports as an alternative. They can be used in trading with the countries in east and north-east Asia.’

This also means ending the dependence on India, and this has been seen a ‘’joyful’’ moment in Kathmandu which has memories of 2015 unofficial blockade that led to hardships for ordinary citizens in large pockets of anti-Indian sections and correspondingly pro-China sentiments.

Though India is now building two railway lines and three additional lines are being planned, refurbishing and upgrading four major custom checkpoints in addition to expanding the road network in the Terai region as also opening the port of Visakhapatnam to Nepal, these gestures do not seem to have made much of an impact.

The latest TTP is one more reiteration of the growing Nepal and China multifaceted relationship.  And there are clearly strategic consequences to this. One important impact of the TTA is that Nepal’s access to Chinese ports will be through six checkpoints at Rasuwa, Tatopani (Sindhupalchok), Korala (Mustang), Kimathanka (Sankhuwasabha), Yari (Humla), and Olangchung Gola (Taplejung). These and other road and railway projects between China and Nepal will allow China to potentially project power against India on a different section of the Sino-Indian boundary, and possibly even outflank Indian military forces at the border.

As a follow-up to an earlier assurance by China to support mega infrastructure projects in Nepal, Nepal’s Minister for Physical Infrastructure and Transport, Ramesh Lekhak, suggested to his Chinese counterpart that the connectivity projects should be speeded up since Nepal’s endorsement of the Belt and Road Initiative. A projected route includes connectivity from Kerung in China all the way to Kathmandu, Pokhara, and Lumbini. Lumbini is just about 100 km from Uttar Pradesh border, making it uncomfortably close.

About China’s plans in Sri Lanka they are making inroads into the Northern Provinces as well as with rubber and tea and coconut plantations. So far they had been confined to the southern parts only. The China Railway Beijing Engineering Group has a contract to build 40,000 houses in Jaffna, worth 300 million dollars. This expansion of the Chinese into the Tamil-dominated areas is significant.

With Maldives too India’s relations seem to have hit rock bottom. The Maldives deadlines for withdrawal of two helicopters it had stationed had passed and the issue of passport for jobseekers has remained unsolved. Maldives has refused to extend the visa of the 26 Indian Navy personnel who are operating the  helicopters.

These were the helicopters India had gifted to the island nation.