China did not figure in any major conversations of Narendra Modi with Nepal’s leaders, but an unstated factor in Delhi’s larger policy framework with regard to Nepal is the role and engagement of Beijing in Kathmandu. China and India have a degree of competition but, crucially, also cooperation in Nepal.
The big change in Beijing’s approach in the past decade has been its high level engagement in Nepal. The gap from India was this and Modi, through his visit, has corrected it. But is this India’s attempt to reassert its control over its ‘backyard’ or would that be an over interpretation?
A top Nepal government official said, “Look, there is no doubt we are closer to India. Even the Chinese know it and have told us to keep good ties with India.”
The key question, he said, was whether India would be insecure of deepening China-Nepal ties or encourage a trilateral partnership on some issues. A top Indian diplomat said that Nepal and China can have ties to whatever extent they want. “But the question is intention. Is it to counter us or is it for bilateral purposes only?”
But in this narrative, the element of cooperation between the two countries is often missed. A former ambassador to Nepal revealed that the Indian and Chinese envoy meet every three months to share their assessment of the internal political evolution of Nepal. “Both want stability. They can’t risk trouble because of potential impact on Tibet and we can’t because of the open border.”
Modi has sought to underplay the element of conflict. He did not say it, but the key thing to watch out for to understand evolving regional dynamics is whether the India-China competition intensifies in Nepal or whether they can find some meeting ground on specific issues.