The Pulse | Diplomacy | South Asia

Himalayas Leveled: How China-Nepal Relations Have Defied Geopolitics

Despite its geography, Nepal no longer belongs to India’s sphere of influence.

Krzysztof Iwanek
Himalayas Leveled: How China-Nepal Relations Have Defied Geopolitics
Credit: MShades / Chris Gladis

Years ago, I undertook the journey from Beijing to Delhi by land, with three legs. The first involved a quick one by trains and buses from Beijing to Lhasa. This was followed by two longer ones: by jeep from Lhasa to Kathmandu and finally by bus from Kathmandu to Delhi. The middle leg of this trip made me witness how much the Himalayas served as a formidable barrier between Nepal and China-controlled Tibet. It also made me skeptical about the idea of the Nepal-China train one hears about from time to time.

Don’t stop reading here; this is not just another article by a guy-that-has-seen-a-region-once-and-thinks-he-now-understands-its-politics. I am aware that “I’ve been there, I’ve seen that” does not count as a proper sampling. What I want to discuss is in fact counter-intuitive: the reality of Nepal’s current international position is largely opposite to what I could have concluded only by observing the country’s geographic position.

If there is one country that admirers of geopolitics should love as an example of the importance of geography to politics, it is Nepal. Being a landlocked, relatively small country with two giant neighbors, completely open to India through its southern plains, and seemingly closed to China through the highest mountains in the world to the north, Nepal should serve as a perfect example of how much geography matters. And, of course, it does matter tremendously. And yet Kathmandu’s relations with Beijing have defied geopolitics and geography.

Geopolitics will be understood here as a school of thought that emphasizes geography as a part of politics. The geopolitical vision of Nepal’s international position led to wrong conclusions for years. It produced miscalculated policies on the Indian side, while China’s lack of fear of geography allowed it to further spread its influence in Nepal.

First, while geography is ever-important, its significance can be modified and diminished by technology. In one of the most daring acts of challenging geography, China had a railway line built all the way from Beijing to Lhasa. By 2014, it was extended to Shigatse, and attempts are now being to make the tracks reach Gyirong, which would mean that it would terminate not far from the Nepali border (but on the other side of the peaks). While I remain highly doubtful if the railway connection can go further than this, to cross the Himalayas down to Nepal, the existing link has already brought Tibet ‘closer’ to China, also allowing for the prompt movement of armed forces between Tibet and the rest of China, thereby giving Beijing more options, for instance, in the case of any conflicts in the Himalayas.

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Even without the railway, Nepal is not completely choked off by its dependence on India; it can still breath some air through the cracks in the Himalayas. It is common knowledge that nearly all products that come to Nepal do so through India. Even loads of Chinese goods destined to reach Nepal arrive by the sea to east India (usually to Kolkata) from where they are transported by land. But a fantastic, granular study of Sino-Nepalese trade by Paras Kharel shows that when it comes to the value of Chinese imports by modes of transport, they are not that imbalanced. In 2017, approximately 59 percent of Chinese imports by value came through points on the India-Nepal border, but the remaining 41 percent came by air (to Kathmandu) and by land from Tibet. The situation was even more balanced before the earthquake in 2015 (which affected trade through Tibet). In 2013, the value of Chinese imports coming through Tibet and by air was 47 percent, while 53 percent was came through India.

Moreover, the number and air connections over the mountains from China to Nepal is growing tremendously, bringing people, money and merchandise. Over the past years, the two countries have modified their air services agreement a few times, gradually raising the number of allowed flights from 14 to 98 in less than 10 years. Floods are not supposed to cross mountains, and yet the last years also witnessed an inundation of Chinese tourists. While they are still eclipsed by Indian tourists in total annual arrivals, Chinese travelers have already climbed to the the second spot and their numbers are growing fast, reaching a scale comparable to that of Indian ones (in 2018, Nepal welcomed over 150,000 Chinese tourists and over 200,000 Indian ones). All of this notwithstanding the geographical fact that many Indian tourists can take a bus to Nepal while most of the Chinese ones need to airfare.

Second, technology brings new dimensions of cooperation. Take wire transfers, for instance. The Sino-Indian war of influence in Nepal has been going on since the 1950s and, seen that way, there is nothing new in it. Both countries were – and are – often buying influence in the Himalayan country with money. For a long time, it would seem that geography offered India a decisive edge in this regard. Earlier, New Delhi could technically always block Nepal by stopping larger transports of anything to the isolated country, including cash. But the Internet made the financial aspect next to redundant. Beijing, which has much more financial heft at its disposal than New Delhi, can simply send money electronically to Nepal when in need. That alone diminishes much of India’s earlier advantages over China. The internet transcends geography; Nepal and China have recently been connected through a fiber link.

A third aspect is very often ignored: the realm of thought, culture, religion, and ideology. Culture is not measurable the way geography is. Modern Nepal is a complicated mix of languages and cultures, and their various aspects provide both China and India with opportunities and obstacles. For instance, India’s historical links to Nepal have been used to good effect by New Delhi in its cooperation with Kathmandu, but they sometimes act as an emotional burden, making it harder to perceive Nepal as a completely separate political entity. New Delhi’s recent policy of strongly defending the rights of Nepal’s minorities from the plains – those Nepali communities that are culturally closest to India – turned out to be disastrous. When in 2016 India imposed a blockade on Nepal to push the government in Kathmandu to provide a better position for its minorities in the 2015 constitution, the move caused outrage. It also gave Beijing an opportunity to offer more assistance to Kathmandu (when the petrol trucks were stopped from entering Nepal on the Indian side, China sent fuel by air). Thus, a close cultural connection between India and Nepal, while usually positive, has in this case led to wrong policy decisions by Delhi, thereby pushing Kathmandu one step closer to the country to which Nepal is less connected both culturally and geographically: China.

On the other side, Beijing has emphasized the Buddhist connection to Nepal, by such projects as financing the development of the site around the Buddha’s birthplace in Lumbini. It is of course difficult to measure how much political leverage this has given to Beijing. Recent reports also show that many Nepalese started to learn Chinese in the last years and even Xi Jinping Thought is now being taught in the country. I doubt if this last move will help China’s image in Nepal, but the rise of the popularity of Chinese should not be overlooked.

This, of course, does not mean that geography does not matter or that it will stop affecting Nepal’s position in the future. New Delhi can still leverage it in a number of ways. Above all, it can develop much better infrastructure connecting India to Nepal at much cheaper costs than those faced by China. A recent opening of a petroleum products pipeline between India and Nepal is a good instance of this. Moreover, India still has its last, geography-based resort: the blockade, which it has used every time it wanted to exert extraordinary pressure on Nepal. This will remain, despite everything mentioned above.

But I’d still argue that geopolitical thinking weakened New Delhi’s position in Nepal instead of strengthening it. It is exactly its geographical predominance that led to New Delhi to taking Nepal for granted: treating it as an extension of India, more of a peninsula glued to India than an island of full sovereignty. The same geographical thinking led to the tactic of blockades, which in the end probably hurt India’s image in Nepal more than anything else.

China’s construction of new infrastructure in the region has become so significant and visible by now that even Robert Kaplan wrote of the “flattening Himalayas” and the “defeat of distance”. Such a conclusion may be read as an own-goal or a capitulation by a person that stressed the primacy of geography in politics. “The high wall of the Himalayas no longer separates these two great civilizations,” added the author of the Revenge of Geography. I guess we could call contemporary Sino-Nepali relations the Revenge of Complex Reality over Geopolitics.