October 8, 2014
By Pramod Jaiswal for IPCS, published October 7, 2014
China is steadily extending its reach into South Asia with its growing economic and strategic influence in the region. It has huge trade surpluses with all South Asian countries and it reciprocates these surpluses with massive investment in infrastructural development, socio-economic needs and energy production in those countries. It also provides them with low-cost financial capital. The largest beneficiaries of such economic assistance are Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal.
Due to China’s rising interest and influence in South Asia, India appears perplexed. Hence, it has changed its foreign policy gesturing. With the election of Narendra Modi as the Indian prime minister, New Delhi has given highest priority to its South Asian neighours. Inviting the heads of the South Asian countries during his swearing-in ceremony and making his first foreign visit to Bhutan and later to Nepal are the clear indications in those directions.
China’s Inroads in Nepal
Given the claims that Nepal may be used by the US for its larger strategy of encircling China, Beijing is concerned about Kathmandu being manipulated by other external powers. Security experts on China state that Beijing increased its interest in Kathmandu due to the perceived threat to Tibet via Nepalese territory – particularly due to the prolonged state of instability and transition in Nepal.
Ever since the March 2008 uprising, when the Tibetans strongly started the global anti-China protests on the eve of the Beijing Olympic Games, there has been a major shift in China’s policy towards Nepal.
The Nepalese King, the then Commander-in-Chief of the Nepalese army, used to be China’s trustworthy partner and served Beijing’s security interests. However, after Nepal became a republic in 2008, China found it expedient to cultivate the Maoists to do the same. They wanted to curb underground activities of the approximately 20,000 Tibetan refugees settled in Nepal. Ideological affinities made Maoists in Nepal cast sympathetic eyes on China. China accepted the friendly hand extended by the Maoists when they were in dire need of support from a strong power. The former Prime Minister of Nepal, Prachanda’s, acceptance of China’s invitation to attend the closing ceremony of the Beijing Olympics not only made him the first prime minister to break the tradition of making India the destination for the first foreign visit following assuming office, but also proved his inclination towards China.
Maoists view India and the US as ‘imperialist powers’ and have stated that they were fighting against their interference in Nepalese politics.
India expressed serious concern over Prachanda’s action. The Indian media went overboard stating that India has lost Nepal from its sphere of influence and that it would affect India’s security in the long run. Interestingly, China supported the Maoist Party only after they emerged as the single largest party in the Constituent Assembly election of April 2008, while, it was the only country to supply arms to King Gyanendra to suppress the Maoist insurgents at a time when India, the US and the UK had refused to provide help of such nature.
Linking Via Railways
China is planning to extend the Qinghai-Tibet Railway to Nepal by 2020. The rail link is expected to be extended to the borders of India and Bhutan as well. Through Qinghai-Tibet Railway, China connected its existing railway system to Tibet’s capital Lhasa in 2006 – which passes through challenging peaks on the Tibetan highlands, touching altitudes as high as 5,000 meters as part of government efforts to boost economic development in the neglected region. In August 2008, six additional rail lines were proposed to connect to Qinghai-Tibet railway – such as the Lhasa-Nyingchi and Lhasa-Shigatse in the Tibet Autonomous Region, the Golmud (Qinghai province)-Chengdu (Sichuan province), Dunhuang (Gansu province)-Korla (Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region), and the Xining (Qinghai Province)-Zhangye (Gansu). The project is expected to be completed before 2020 while the Lhasa–Shigatse segment was completed in August 2014.
The Lhasa-Shigatse segment extends over 253 kilometers, carrying trains at 120 kmph through valleys and over three bridges that run across the Brahmaputra River. The opening of this segment has reduced the travel time from Lhasa to the remote border towns of Tibet by half. This particular railway line is to be extended to Rasuwagadhi in Nepal via the Shigatse-Kerung stretch. Rasuwagadhi is about 500 kilometers from Shigatse. It is also reported that the link will have two separate extension points, one with the Nepal border and the other with the borders of India and Bhutan.
Shigatse is an important monastery town, home to the Tashilhunpo monastery that has been the seat of the Panchen Lamas, and is an important centre of pilgrimage for many Tibetans.
In response to the Chinese attempt to extend the railway link from Tibet to the Nepalese border, Kathmandu has drafted a plan to extend its railway links to Nepal. [NOTE: The above is in dispute. M.D.] Simultaneously, India has announced assistance worth Rs. 10.88 billion for the expansion of railway services in five places along the India-Nepal border.
Though Chinese claims that the rail network expansion will be crucial in economic, cultural, and tourism promotion in South Asia, it has alarmed New Delhi because of its strategic implications. While Nepal is shares a common dream of extending the railway line to Lumbini, the birth place of Lord Buddha, through Kathmandu, there is sign of nervousness among the Indian government due to the possible threat. Such fear might gradually fade after Modi’s invitation to the Chinese to fulfill his ambitious bullet train plan.
Pramod Jaiswal is a SAARC Doctorate Fellow, Centre for South Asian Studies, JNU
IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public.