New Delhi needs to keep China and Pakistan guessing about its next step

by Seshadri Chari

China’s claim to Nepali territory in its north-western district should be seen as part of its larger strategy to encircle India and pre-empt New Delhi from taking any unilateral action in the northern region, especially in the Pakistan-occupied areas of the Indian territory of Jammu and Kashmir. There has never been a dull moment in the history of the Himalayas since the time tribes started traversing the treacherous pathways for livelihood, trade and wars. While the cultural linkages of the Nepali region with India and its people are as old as the mountains, the new entrant, Beijing, doesn’t enjoy any such association, nor does it have the legitimacy to its claim on any part of the geography here.

After China’s sustained attempt to encircle India with String of Pearls in the Indian Ocean, the recent land grab in the Himalayas by Beijing should be interpreted as a string of infrastructure projects — railway stations and border trade centres in the hills — specifically aimed at encroaching India’s immediate neighbourhood.

Beijing’s Land Grab In Nepal

According to media reports from Kathmandu, China has occupied land in about 11 places in four districts of Nepal, all along the Nepal-Tibet border. The residents of Rui village in Gorkha district were agitating for identity document from Nepali authorities when they were, reportedly, presented with Chinese documents. Another media report says that China has occupied six hectares of land near Bhagdare Khola (river) area and substantial land in a relatively less inhabited Liho area in Karnali in Humla district. Besides, there are reports that Chinese soldiers are camping in Sinjen Khola and Bhurjuk Khola in Rasuwa district. China has also occupied substantial land in Kharane, Sindhu Pal, Samjung and Arun river bed in the north-eastern district of Sankhuwasabha — famous for its cardamom farming and ancient Shiva Temple. Its proximity to Doklam Valley and Siliguri corridor makes it an extremely strategic area and a potential threat to India’s security.

China built the Araniko highway in the 1960s, passing through Kodari, which became a popular trade centre at the border crossing in Sindhupal Chowk. After the 2015 earthquake, China closed down the Kodari border crossing and moved the local market and its population to Shigatse. The Lhasa-Burang railway line passing through Nanggarze, Shigatse, Lhatse, Tingri, and Gyirong will finally link with Gilgit and join the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Incidentally, when Nepal issued a new map claiming Indian territory as their own, the spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs had dismissed the amendments to the map as amounting to “artificial enlargement of claims that are not based on historical fact or evidence and is not tenable”. As per media sources, although successive Nepali governments realised China had been annexing their land, they preferred to remain silent, not able to summon enough courage to protest due to the debt trap syndrome.

Xinjiang And Tibet In 1950s, Nepal Now

By consolidating its position in the Galwan Valley and increasing the presence of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops even as military-level talks with India are ongoing, China has already signalled to New Delhi of the futility of waging a war, much less even preparing to confront it in the high altitude. With the laying of claim to a village in the Humla region in Nepal, China has made its intentions clear—it is prepared for a long-drawn conflict that will ultimately benefit Beijing as it happened in the case of occupation of Xinjiang and Tibet in the 1950s.

While the erstwhile Soviet Union was aggressively enlisting client States and increasing its geography rapidly after the spoils of the Second World War were apportioned, China was quietly nibbling away territories in all directions. This gave it a tremendous advantage vis-à-vis countries it never shared borders with when it became the People’s Republic of China in 1948. Occupation of Xinjiang and Tibet entitled China to share borders with India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Mongolia.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union extended a readymade advantage to Beijing to step into the former’s shoes. In a smart and calculated move, China did not pursue the ideological doctrine of the USSR. Instead, it concentrated on the trade, commerce and soft power aspects, and increased its footprint in Central Asia, South Asia, South-East Asia, the Indian Ocean Rim Region and the Asia-Pacific, called the Indo-Pacific now. In continuation of its strategy and outreach, China extended its signature scheme of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to Pakistan through CPEC, which connects China to the Indian Ocean by a road passing through Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

India’s Opportunity In Pakistan’s Distress

For more than three weeks now, people of Gilgit-Baltistan areas have been protesting to reject the imposition of Islamabad’s laws on them because, according to them, the region does not belong to Pakistan. The rebellion against the Pakistan Army has already reached alarming proportions in Baluchistan. Events in Sindh, in general, and Karachi, in particular, are portents of another serious secessionist movement in that area. At the root of all these protests is the loot and plunder of resources by the clique that rules Islamabad, practically turning the country into a satellite of China. The turf war between the army and the political establishment is adding to the uncertainty in Islamabad. Meanwhile, the combined opposition has called for another round of fresh protests demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Imran Khan.

At such a juncture, all that New Delhi needs to do is to keep the two adversaries, China and Pakistan, guessing about its next step. While Pakistan is collapsing due to the weight of its own contradictions, its utility for Beijing is at the lowest possible stage. The political standoff and anti-army atmosphere has reduced the army’s capabilities to protect Chinese assets in CPEC.

Little wonder that Beijing is turning to Nepal for support and as a launchpad for anti-India activities. The tottering political establishment, run by Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, living far beyond its expiry date as Beijing’s proxy in Kathmandu is more than willing to bend over backwards to barter away its sovereignty to China.

New Delhi will also have to warn the Oli government that allowing China to use Nepal’s territory for anti-India activities and endangering India’s national security will invite an appropriate response.