Dr. Anil Sigdel
Part I (June 05, 2020)
India’s changing of status-quo in Kalapani by first including the territory into its newly released political map, and second, inaugurating a new road section that goes through Kalapani to China/Tibet border, caused an unprecedented level of reaction from Nepal against India. Nepal’s PM Oli’s government endorsed a new political map that includes entire areas in the region under dispute – Lipulekh Pass to Tibet, the source of Mahakali or Kali river Limipiadhura and Kalapani area. This new map has given “extra” 335 square kilometers of land to Nepal.
Such strong step by Nepal has undoubtedly come has a painfully surprising blow to India, but what action India would take against it has left Nepal preoccupied while the small neighbor explores possibilities to move forward with its claims. In the following, this article will show what statements from both governments have been made on the matter that explain their position and preferences, political parties and politicians’ statements, and some evidence talked about by practitioners and scholars, to briefly examine how the issue is framed, and the perception and preferences of each side.
As seen in the Map 1 and Map 2 (maps are for visual aid purposes and are not accurate), Nepal’s new map claims a strip of territory along the Kali river reaching up to its origin Limpiadhura. The new covers the areas between the river and the China border to the north, thereby including all points that have been dragged into dispute. Map 2 shows the Lipulekh pass where India’s new road reaches to Tibet, and the source of the river Limpiadhura, and the areas inside the dotted lines seen on the Google map is Kalapani. The exact new addition to Nepal’s territory as per the new map except Kalapani is 335 square kilometers as said before.
The principal documents that defines the border between India and Nepal is the Sugauli Treaty of 1816, which defines the Kali river as the boundary. Over the years, different maps had been issued, however, they were not signed by two sides nor were there any active disputes regarding these bordering areas given the sparsely inhabited high altitude mountainous terrain. But in the 1960s this started to be a controversial matter — see this article by Nepal Matters for America for more details.
India’s Defense Minister Raj Nath Singh, accompanied by Chief of Defense Staff General Bipin Rawat and Chief of Army Staff General Manoj Mukunda Naravane, inaugurated the completed raod section between Darchula to Lipulekh. On the occasion, the minister tweeted: “delighted to inaugurate the Link Road Mansarovar Yatra today.” Map 1 shows the pilgrimage Lake Mansarovar in Tibet. As India has been building strategic roads towards the China border over the last two decades, this section in particular delights the Hindu nationalist BJP leaders as they take the opportunity to present this road to their Hindu constituents and show that Modi has not only provided the shortest route for the pilgrims, but also that most part of the travelling will be in “Indian territory” unlike the existing Nepal route or Sikkim’s Nathu La pass route. The convergence of interests between defense establishment and the Hindu leaders is seen at the remote inauguration as Minister Singh sits with the CDS and CAS.
In response to India’s new map, Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a press release stating that the government “firmly believes that Kalapani is a part of Nepal” and that “any unilateral decision” on the border related issues outside of the existing mechanism at the ministerial levels by India will be “unacceptable” for Nepal. It says that Nepal is firm in its determination that the problem should be resolved through diplomatic channels on the basis of historical documents, facts and evidence. However, then Indian Ministry of External Affairs Spokesperson responded by saying that India’s “map accurately depicts the sovereign territory of India. The new map has in no manner revised our boundary with Nepal.” Similar to the Nepalese line in terms of resolving the matter through talks, the spokesperson further said that the “boundary delineation exercise with Nepal is ongoing under the existing mechanism. We reiterate our commitment to find a solution through dialogue in the spirit of our close and friendly bilateral relations.” However, it should be noted here that India had recognized earlier that Kalapani was a “dispute” but this time takes a sharp turn to claim the accuracy of the its map. Anyways, Nepal’s requests for talks fell on deaf ears despite PM Oli’s rhetoric that not just India would reverse its map, that he will get Nepal’s land back.
But as South Asia goes into lockdown due to Covid-19, Nepal gets a double blow as India made public its completion of the road between Pittoragarh via Gunji to Lipulekh pass. Nepal immediately summons Indian Ambassador in Kathmandu and hands over a note to protest India’s move. Exacerbating the matter, India’s CAS Naravane insinuated Chinese role in Nepal’s reaction. He stated: “The area east of Kali river belongs to them. The road that we built is on the west of the river. There was no dispute. I don’t know what they are agitating about,” the Army Chief said. There has never been any problem in the past. There is reason to believe that they might have raised the issues at the behest of someone else and that is very much a possibility.
In fact, there is no dispute that the border is along the Kali or Mahakali river, but the problem was caused when India’s interpretation of the source of the river differed to Nepal’s understanding on the basis of the 1816 treaty — the only comprehensive boundary treaty so far between British India and King of Nepal.
Again, Nepal’s plea for talks or any other response from India would not happen, and the streets of Nepal witnessed fierce agitation, the Oli government decided to issue a new map.
Nepal’s Claim of Indian Occupation of Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiadhura
Nepal’s Claim and India’s Road – A close-up view
Part II of the piece will be out soon! Stay tuned!
Dr. Sigdel is the founding director of Nepal Matters for America in Washington DC.
Nepal-China Ties Tighten, but Who Gains? by Anil Sigdel in East Asia Forum, 20 November 2019
Link to the article: East Asia Forum
After upwards of 80 international trips, Chinese President Xi Jinping finally visited his South Asian neighbour, Nepal. The primary motive behind Xi’s visit was not China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), but rather the US’s Indo-Pacific strategy. Despite the United States’ efforts, Nepal is hesitant to endorse the Indo-Pacific strategy. Meanwhile, Nepal signed a memorandum of understanding with China to cooperate on the BRI in 2017, but not a single BRI project has taken off in Nepal.
At the time of signing on to the BRI, Nepal’s ruling Communist Party seemed either unaware or deliberately downplayed the geopolitical implications of subscribing to China’s initiative that has gone on to challenge the US-led global order. Indeed, a year later, Nepal’s Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali was invited to Washington where Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered Nepal a ‘central role’ in the US Indo-Pacific strategy. This was the first Nepal–US state visit of that level in 17 years.
In Nepal, the US Indo-Pacific strategy was immediately perceived as a strategy to use Nepal to contain China. For Nepal’s part, its long-standing endorsement of the ‘One China policy’, especially regarding Tibet, works as the foundation of a healthy relationship. Time and again, Nepal has come under pressure to provide a safe passage for Tibetan refugees to India — a long-standing US policy priority in Nepal. In this regard, the US Indo-Pacific policy has only amplified traditional concerns.
The Indo-Pacific strategy was not welcomed in Nepal for two additional reasons.
First, the ‘Indo’ part of the strategy that refers to India’s role in Asia is at odds with Nepal’s strong desire to reduce its dependence on India. Perhaps the strongest reason why there is support for China in Nepal, including among politicians, bureaucrats and members of the press, is Nepal’s experience with India.
Endorsing the US strategy would risk Nepal shooting itself in the foot by indirectly supporting Indian dominance in South Asia. It also feeds into Nepal’s fear that acquiescing to such pressures may destabilise the country. To be sure, India’s vision of the region differs from the US Indo-Pacific version and India–US relations are multilayered. Yet, India’s vision ensures that it remains the pre-eminent player in South Asia.
Second, while the United States and other liberal democracies and organisations have pursued the promotion of democracy and human rights in the international community, some of their policies, particularly on ethnic politics and secularism, have caused misunderstandings. Most Nepalese believe that external pressures in these areas have undermined Nepal’s identity and compromised its economic growth and development.
Meanwhile, building upon their long-standing friendly ties, China has cautiously extended its arms to Nepal in order to gain goodwill. China offered financial aid to Nepal’s security bodies to enhance cooperation and has cemented party-to-party relations by increasing interactions, visits and financial aid for development projects.
Nepal–US diplomacy appears to be under stress despite the United States being a major partner of Nepal’s communist government. Nepal’s government has yet to officially accept a US$500 million grant from the US Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) that has already been signed by both countries but was later tied to the Indo-Pacific strategy. Moreover, per the MCC conditions, for the agreement to enter into force, Nepal must obtain Indian consent on operational and financial details in order to fund a cross-border transmission line between Nepal and India. This only reinforces Nepal’s apprehension towards the US Indo-Pacific strategy.
Some argue that the main issue is that radical constituents of Nepal’s ruling party blocked the parliament from moving forward with endorsing the MCC grant. Despite Nepal’s policy of ‘amity with all and enmity with none’, experts in Kathmandu are concerned that the country is becoming too politically correct when it comes to China and that there is a lack of critical observation.
By building upon long-standing ties with the Nepali army and maintaining several diplomatic advantages over China, the United States remains in the game.
President Xi’s visit to Nepal comes as the country’s conditions are in China’s favour. Nepal’s current government is stable and, therefore, has a better chance of implementing agreements. Xi’s visit has also been taken by Nepalis as an elevation of Nepal’s stature in the international community, particularly given Nepali President Bidhya Devi Bhandari’s state visit to Beijing during the BRI Forum this year. During this visit, Xi also seized the opportunity at a now widely reported on press conference to warn ‘external forces’ that he believed to be seeking to divide China.
Most importantly, Xi and Nepali Prime Minister KP Oli agreed to elevate the Nepal–China relationship to a ‘strategic partnership’. This, arguably, immediately prompted a response in Washington as the acting Assistant Secretary at the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells commented that ‘Chinese influence has grown in Nepal’.
Nepali politicians should understand that growing ties with China must not lead to an undermining of the universal values of democracy and freedom. The international community must come to terms with the reality of China’s rise and how it will inevitably impact the trans-Himalayan order. This will require an understanding of Nepal’s interests and concerns.
Photo: Xi Jinping and Bidya Bhandari, Reuters/Mathema
Dr Anil Sigdel is Director at Nepal Matters for America, Washington DC