Image: Sanjay Hona (Unsplash)

The current standoff between two emerging powers, China and India, has brought up suppressed issues within Nepal which geographically, lies in the middle of these states. Which neighbour Nepal will choose to side with, if any, is largely based on its own territorial disputes with China and India.

The main territorial dispute between India and Nepal is over the Kalapani region. Named after the Mahakali river, the region of Kalapani in the easternmost corner of Uttarakhand’s Pithoragarh district. Kalapani has been under Indian administration since the 1960s. This strip of land is in a tri-junction between Nepal, India and China and had previously been claimed by Nepal as its own.

The area is strategically positioned, extending into the Himalayas and connected to the other side of the mountain range through the Lipulekh pass. In comparison to other passes in the Himalayas which connect Tibet and the Gangetic region, Lipulekh is the nearest to the heart of the Indian state. This proximity makes the region a potentially vulnerable spot during conflict with China.

The Kalapani region was offered to India by the King of Nepal after the 1962 India-China war to help ease security concerns due to the perceived Chinese threat. Nepal serves as a buffer between India and Tibet , the height of the Lipulekh pass makes it advantageous to India’s surveillance of China.

What was intended as a temporary use of the area during the war, has blurred the lines of territorial borders. The release of a new map in November 2019 by the Indian government not only officialised Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh as union territories, it also included Kalapani in its borders. In May 2020, India inaugurated a link road in disputed territory near the three-way junction with Nepal and China. From Nepal’s perspective this new road was an attack on Nepal’s sovereignty as deemed by Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, Nepal responded by drafting a new map which places the disputed region within Nepali borders. 

Nepal claims the territory based on the Treaty of Sugauli signed after the Anglo-Nepalese War (1814-1816), which acknowledge the Mahakali river as a marker of the boundary of Nepal acknowledging its territorial claim over the region east of the river. According to Nepal, the eastern region should begin at the river’s source, the origin of the dispute is mostly due to the varying interpretation of where the river and its tributaries’ sources are. Nepal’s experts claim the river on the Lipulekh pass in mountains near Limpiyadhura, whilst India contests that the river originates in Kalapani.

Not only does the Lipulekh pass affect India’s and China’s security, socially it has been used for centuries by tourists, Buddhist and Hindu pilgrims en-route to Kailash Mansarovar, the highest freshwater lake and one of the most revered lakes in Asia as part of the yatra. Markets in close proximity to Kailash Mansarovar have been used by the surrounding mountain communities to generate wealth.

Which side is Nepal on , India’s or China’s ? 

The 2015 Lipulekh agreement, renewing India’s Mansarovar pilgrimage connection and boosting trade and pilgrimage to Tibet failed to include Nepal as it was between India and China and neither side consulted Nepal. India and China transformed Lipulekh into a trade route.

Nepal is dependent on India for essential goods, dominating two thirds of total Nepalese imports and often intervening on domestic politics to the aggravation of Nepal. India has displayed expansionist behaviour, encroaching on Nepal territory such as Lipulekh and Kalapani. With failed attempts at its ‘neighbourhood first’ approach in foreign policy, India is gradually becoming a vassal of the US (United States). Making it a potential ally in the larger US-China trade war which further exacerbates tensions between itself and China. 

Unlike India, China respects Nepal’s territorial sovereignty and has tried to reduce Nepal’s dependency on India by FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) through their BRI (Belt and Road Initiative), building infrastructure in an effort to increase connectivity between the two states and China’s overall influence in Asia and the global arena. The development process will not be a free one for Nepal, as the two countries are expected to split the costs of the infrastructure – something that Nepal might not be able to afford. Looking at similar infrastructure construction projects such as in the Chhentu-Lahsa sector which costed over $200 dollars per kilometre. Nepal’s Kerung-Kathmandu may have additional costs as it has more difficult terrains and topography. Rather than take a loan for this project Nepal would like China to build the infrastructure from the framework of foreign aid, to try and avoid the Chinese debt trap.  

China, in comparison to India, has less transit spots and a lack of infrastructure between itself and Nepal. According to economist Posh Pandey, India is the recipient of 60 percent of Nepal’s exports whilst China only receives two percent. Whilst India is Nepal’s largest trade partner, with China coming in second place, the Kalapani border dispute has resulted in the two being on opposing sides – with China being its default ally.

Despite support from China against India in the past and factoring in the occupation of Nepal’s territory, Lipulekh. In the current standoff between India and China Nepal has chosen to remain a non-aligned actor, leaving the fight between its two neighbours, with hopes that it will not escalate into a full-blown war which could result in the Asian superpowers claiming more of Nepal’s territory. 

Paulinah Zulu is a third year International Studies student at the University of Pretoria. A community charity contributor with interests in global policy. She is working towards becoming a policy analyst. 

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