View from the Himalayas | A fine balance among the Himalayan states - Hindustan Times
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View from the Himalayas | A fine balance among the Himalayan states

Apr 02, 2024 08:53 PM IST

The Himalayas will remain a contested space between India and China; Bhutan and Nepal face an uphill task. Here's why

While the nature of the strategic rivalry between India and China and their ties with each of their neighbours have markedly changed in the last decade or so, the Himalayan region has remained a hotly contested space between the two Asian powers for a much longer period. And by all indications, it will continue to be so.  

(FILES) This photograph taken on December 6, 2019 shows tourists walking across a suspension bridge over the Puna Tsang Chhu River in Punakha province in Bhutan. Squeezed between giant arch-rivals India and China, the landlocked mountain kingdom of Bhutan was long isolated by icy Himalayan peaks. But as Bhutan readies to elect a new parliament in Thimphu on January 9, China and India are watching the contest with keen interest as they eye strategic contested border zones, analysts warn. (Photo by Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP)(AFP) PREMIUM
(FILES) This photograph taken on December 6, 2019 shows tourists walking across a suspension bridge over the Puna Tsang Chhu River in Punakha province in Bhutan. Squeezed between giant arch-rivals India and China, the landlocked mountain kingdom of Bhutan was long isolated by icy Himalayan peaks. But as Bhutan readies to elect a new parliament in Thimphu on January 9, China and India are watching the contest with keen interest as they eye strategic contested border zones, analysts warn. (Photo by Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP)(AFP)

The turn of events is well-documented in the run-up to the 1962 war when the two countries were engaged in ‘shadow boxing’ in the borderland regions. Tibet was annexed by the People’s Republic of China in 1951 and Sikkim became a part of the Indian Union in 1975. Further, the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh is claimed by China as ‘Zangnan’ or ‘South Tibet.’

China seemed uninterested in fully settling the border problem, as they were adamant that Tawang, a large and crucial city located in Arunachal Pradesh, belonged to China, according to an October 2023 article (‘Tracking India’s Infrastructure Development Near the Line of Actual Control’) published by the Observer Research Foundation, which tracked the development of border infrastructures by India near the Line of Actual Control (LAC). As this realisation deepened over time, it has led to India’s greater urgency in enhancing its border infrastructure, a move China has watched with deep suspicion.

What has transpired this past month offers a snapshot of the contention between the two big powers, the current trajectory of their neighbourhood ties, and the balancing act of two small states in the Himalayan region, Nepal and Bhutan.    

On March 9, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi inaugurated the Sela Tunnel in India’s Northeast. Located at 13,000 feet, the 1.5-kilometer double-lane tunnel is a key border infrastructure that connects Assam — the Northeast’s most populated and most industrialised state — to Tawang in Arunachal.

Tawang, 33 kilometres from the Tibet border, is a flashpoint. In December 2022, Indian and Chinese troops clashed in the Yangtse region of Tawang, resulting in injuries of at least half a dozen Indian troops. The new tunnel allows the Indian military round-the-year movement through the contested Line of Control (LAC), safeguarding logistics from getting hit during a snowfall.

Beijing hasn’t tried to hide its displeasure over the border development.

“We require the Indian side to cease any action that may complicate the boundary question. The Chinese military remains highly vigilant and will resolutely defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” it said after the inauguration of the Sela tunnel.

India quickly hit back. Beijing, they said, was making “absurd claims,” and that the area in question in Arunachal “is and will always be an integral and inalienable part of India.”

On the one hand, the diplomatic spat over the Himalayan region underscores the deep tensions between Asia’s largest countries. On the other, it further heightens anxieties among their smaller highland neighbours, who are always trying to balance relations with the giants.  

PM Modi visits Thimphu to solidify ties

On March 23, PM Narendra Modi made a two-day visit to Bhutan, and in the process made a significant departure from the time-honoured tradition of the Indian head of government avoiding an official visit to a foreign country after the announcement of elections. The visit comes at a time when Thimphu and Beijing (with whom it has no official diplomatic ties) are engaged in settling issues at the disputed border, which includes Doklam.

An 11-point joint statement following the Modi visit showcases India and Bhutan's multidimensional ties. The statement has stressed "the enduring partnership anchored in common values as well as shared cultural and spiritual heritage." Clearly, the message is that India, though ruled by a Hindu revivalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), respects the fact that a vast majority of Bhutanese follow Buddhism, which is also its state religion, though the country also has a sizeable following of Hinduism. In that respect, Delhi seems keen to project itself as markedly different from Beijing, which takes a rather dim view of Tibetan Buddhism (as against ‘Han Buddhism’ or ‘Chinese Buddhism,’ which accounts for the vast majority of Chinese Buddhists) in public life. Since the 1990s, worshipping the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of one of the main schools of Tibetan Buddhism, or displaying his image has been effectively banned. Beijing considers him to be a ‘separatist’. 

Security interest is another important area stressed in the statement, with the two countries expressing “satisfaction with the cooperation between our two countries related to our mutual security.”

Then there is a future roadmap: that the two sides will together pursue "a transformative partnership." This includes promoting connectivity — through rail links, roads, air, waterways, and trade infrastructure — for seamless cross-border movement of goods and services.

The two sides are already strongly invested in energy cooperation, which they view as "a visible illustration of deep economic engagement, which results in mutually beneficial outcomes." Notably, they also believe that their cooperation will help enhance energy security in the region, a key feature of the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN), a subregional architecture initiative. When Nepal’s PM Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ visited New Delhi in June last year, the two sides agreed that Delhi would import 10,000 MW of power from Nepal in the next 10 years. Prachanda also welcomed New Delhi’s decision to facilitate the first trilateral power transaction from Nepal to Bangladesh through the Indian grid with an export of 40 MW.  

In recent times, the development of a special administrative region has been a major agenda for Bhutan in its talks with Indian authorities – a point that finds due mention in the joint statement. Spanning 1,000 sq km, Gelephu represents 2.5% of Bhutan's total surface area and is expected to bring significant investments in public infrastructure such as roads, bridges, and airports.

Amidst political upheaval in Bhutan, Chinese demand for BRI projects

On March 24, Nepal’s newly sworn-in deputy prime minister and minister for foreign affairs Narayan Kaji Shrestha arrived in China for a nine-day visit – far too long for a sitting minister, as many have remarked on Nepal’s traditional and social media platforms. He also visited Tibet Kailash-Manasarovar, a holy site for both Hindus and Buddhists, before returning on April 1, Monday.

This is the first foreign visit by the foreign minister since PM Prachanda inducted Nepal’s largest communist party, the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML), in his ruling coalition early this month, ditching the centrist Nepali Congress, the largest party in the hung Parliament. With this, three communist parties, including the PM’s own Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) are now together in the five-party coalition, where the Rastriya Swatantra Party, a new party, is expected to play a crucial devil’s advocate.  

On March 26, Shrestha met his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Beijing, where the Chinese leader urged Nepal to expedite the implementation of Belt and Road (BRI) projects. Though Nepal signed the BRI framework agreement in May 2017, no BRI project has taken off yet. Beijing’s effort to put some completed or ongoing Chinese investments (most notably, the Pokhara International Airport) under the umbrella of President Xi Jinping's signature foreign-policy architecture has drawn quick denial from the Nepali side.

Nepal’s former PM Sher Bahadur Deuba conveyed to Beijing that it would not be in Nepal’s national interest to secure high-interest commercial loans from China under BRI, a position that’s increasingly articulated at public forums in Nepal by leaders across the political spectrum and foreign-policy experts. The Nepali Congress (now the main opposition in Parliament) has asked the Prachanda government to maintain ‘total transparency’ about BRI agreements with China.

Last week, Nepal asked the visiting Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) officials to invest in its power sector but were careful to stress that the loans should be at low interest rates. Nepal requires close to $60 billion in investment in production, distribution and transmission projects in order to implement its Energy Sector Roadmap.  

Meanwhile, in recent meetings with their Nepali counterparts, Chinese officials have made it clear that signing the BRI implementation plan is a prerequisite for extending economic cooperation to Nepal as well as executing the projects that China had committed to in the past, The Kathmandu Post reported on March 27. India is the only country in South Asia which hasn’t signed the BRI.

In a geopolitically contested neighbourhood, the Himalayan states sit high on a fine balance. 

Akhilesh Upadhyay is former Editor-in-Chief of The Kathmandu Post and Senior Fellow with the Center for Strategic Affairs at IIDS, a Kathmandu-based think tank. The views expressed are personal

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