Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang visited Nepal recently, marking one of the most important China-Nepal high-level interactions in recent years. As the trip came several days after Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Kathmandu, many Indian people regarded Wang’s visit as a clear example of China and India’s competition for Nepal, believing Nepal is getting closer to China.
Traditionally, Nepal has maintained equal diplomatic relations between China and India. However, after Nepal promulgated its new constitution in 2015, India imposed an undeclared blockade on Nepal, making Nepal suffer a serious energy crisis. Nepal was forced to turn to China for help.
More and more Nepalese recognize that if the China-Nepal land trade route, an alternative to the India-Nepal route, was established under the Belt and Road initiative, they could really achieve diplomatic independence. Against this backdrop, at the request of Nepal, China increased assistance toward Nepal. In 2016, China surpassed India as Nepal’s largest source of aid. On the surface, Nepal has shown a tendency to move closer toward China.
But in fact, whether in terms of politics, security or economy, Nepal needs both India and China.
India fears that Nepal will swing to China and stay away from India. In terms of physiology and religion, the Nepalese are closer to the Indians than the Chinese. As Hinduism is the major religion of Nepal, the Nepalese have a natural religious connection with the Indians. Nepal also has a large number of Indians, which makes Nepal naturally closer to India.
Despite these favorable conditions, India, putting political security first, takes controlling Nepal as a basic goal, and regards any China-Nepal contact as an erosion of India’s control.
In fact, the goal of Nepal is not to oppose India, but to solve the major problems that challenge its economic development. Nepal is bounded on the north by the Himalayas and on the south by India. This geographical situation not only makes Nepal’s economy dependent on relations with India, but causes high transportation costs, making it difficult for Nepal to enjoy the economic benefits of geographical connectivity. Nepal and the international economic engine cannot be directly linked.
To solve these problems, Nepal hopes to build direct land connections with China, which could help Nepal link up with the engine of China’s economic development.
Nepal has been very positive about the China-proposed Belt and Road initiative and put forward its own ideas. Nepalese scholars have repeatedly suggested that China can take the lead to establish a trans-Himalayan railway connecting China, India and Nepal. If this idea can be supported by China and India, Nepal will change from a geographical dead end alley to a traffic hub between China and India. Nepal wants to connect with China and India at the same time.
China understands this and does not expect to replace India’s influence on Nepal, nor to reject India’s reasonable presence in Nepal.
China’s basic logic is economics first, although it does not reject possible associated political and security interests. This gives China a freer space for its Nepal policy and makes it more acceptable to Nepal.
In short, the so-called competition between China and India for Nepal, in fact, is a competition between India’s desire for political security, and China’s desire for economic cooperation. To a certain extent, this is also a competition between new complexities of the legacy of colonialism and Cold War logic and the new global dynamics based on connectivity. The results of Sino-Indian competition not only reflect the balance of power between China and India, but also show the development trend of the 21st century.