In Nepal, change is in the fresh mountain air. After two rounds of voting on November 26th and December 7th last year, the Left Alliance emerged victorious in Kathmandu. The party is a coalition formed between two separate Communist parties of Nepal, one identifying as Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML), and the other as the Maoist Centre. While a government has yet to be formed and a prime minister yet to be appointed, likely candidate Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, former leader of the UML, has already been vocal about the direction his party plans to take Nepal in – decisively pro-China and anti-India.
Since late 2015 bilateral ties between China and Nepal have been strengthening mostly in terms of infrastructure, development, and energy. This coincides with the UML and Maoist parties’ increasing influence in the country. Nepal has signed documents to become an official part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, while China has also been testing the feasibility of a Himalayan railway link with various new road projects. Most recently, China also granted Nepal broadband access, ending the monopoly over the internet in the country once held by India. Prior to these more concrete partnerships, China provided aid for Nepal after the deadly 2015 earthquake, and opened new Confucian schools and cultural centres in Kathmandu, hoping to teach Nepali citizens more about Chinese language, history and culture.
India, on the other hand, as Nepal’s closest bilateral ally for decades and regional rival of China, has simultaneously lost its benign reputation in Nepal. This widening rift between the two countries arose following the creation of Nepal’s new constitution. While being a great milestone in the final stages of Nepal’s democratic transition, the constitution is also highly discriminatory to the country’s Indian-origin and predominantly Hindu Madhesi minority.
Tensions erupted as widespread demonstrations by Madhesi broke out, which escalated into a four-month road blockade on the Indian-Nepali border and led the country to unravel along ethnic lines – placing India in a precarious situation. While India had assisted Nepal in their democratic transition, their sympathy toward the Madhesi, was seen as a betrayal by many Nepalis. The blockade halted the trade of much-needed supplies to Nepal, such as fuel along with other essentials, putting thousands of already vulnerable Nepali citizens at risk of further shortages. India’s involvement in the blockade remains ambiguous; while some claimed India purposefully engineered the roadblock, Indian media sources insisted the Madhesis blocked the southern border without Indian interference.
Either way, this blockade marked a sharp shift in regional dynamics; as Nepali-Indian relations soured, new opportunities arose for Nepal and China to forge closer ties. During the roadblock, Kathmandu signed agreements with Beijing on diversifying their energy supply, importing petroleum from their Northern neighbor and discussing the possibility of obtaining sea access via Chinese ports.
Many in Nepal have welcomed the new cooperation with China, seeing it as a refreshing alternative to India’s historical dominance in the country. But it is also evident that Nepal’s relationship with India cannot be easily broken, and that there are some practical issues with Beijing’s promises. For instance, the proposed Lhasa-Kathmandu railway link would require years of work and countless resources. It is estimated that the project would cost China up to eight billion dollars to complete – and travelling through the Himalayas is not much easier by road, with many projects remaining far from completion. China’s early actions could then be a display for Nepal; a diplomatic manoeuvre to swing sentiment in their favor, and against India, for their own political and security reasons.
There is no doubt that gaining a foothold in Nepal would be beneficial for China, especially in light of increased regional tension with India after the Doklam crises earlier in 2017. These strained relations make it even more crucial for Nepal to attempt to stay neutral between China and India in order to avoid being a catalyst that would bring the two South Asian powers to a crescendoing stand-off.
While China may currently have the upper hand in terms of offering Nepal new development funds and diversified imports, India surely has a soft-power upper hand – if it is successful in wielding it. China faces the immovable obstacle of geography in tightening its relations with Kathmandu, but it also lacks a solid cultural connection with Nepal. India’s obstacles, meanwhile, are its bad reputation and its past mistakes in Kathmandu – shortcomings it could make up for in non-traditional diplomatic methods that go beyond politics and security. India and Nepal share an interconnected history, similar languages and religions, and a 1,700km open border which both Nepalese and Indians can cross visa-free. Furthermore, thousands of Nepalis attend university in India, and even more stay to work there, sending remittances back home.
Inevitably, it will take time for Nepal to diversify – as a small, landlocked state, Nepal cannot afford to say no to India’s bilateral assistance. The new leadership in Nepal is also faced with challenges greater than balancing its powerful neighbors: ethnic conflict, primarily between the Madhesi and the “hill people” of Kathmandu and the greater highlands. There has been no amendment to the 2015 constitution that outraged Madhesi and other minority ethnic groups, who feel that parts of it have led to further marginalization from mainstream political structures –including the redrawing of federal-provincial boundaries. Establishing order and stability in the country by giving minority groups such as the Madhesi equal representation in Kathmandu has been, and will continue to be, one of the greatest challenges facing Nepal’s leadership.
While December’s election has served to revive the anti-India, pro-China conversation in South Asia, it is clear that Kathmandu has already been slowly intensifying its relationship with Beijing since 2015. The victory of the Left Alliance and the decisive words of its leaders may have just served to put this shift into the spotlight.