North by Northeast


From The Hindu (19 May, 2016)
Nepal’s opening up to China should compel India to rethink its geostrategic doctrine about the Himalayan range. Leaving Nepal free to develop its international outreach would be an enlightened starting point.

The Himalaya is no longer the barrier New Delhi strategists have long regarded it as, and there is today a churning all along the mountain range that demands a reassessment of what the stretch means for India’s security, commerce and connectivity. New Delhi has been skittish about the northern ‘rimland’ of South Asia ever since the 1962 debacle at the hands of China. It is time to shed the Himalayan paranoia.

India’s self-image is that of a benign democracy, but it is somewhat less so from the Himalayan perspective, if you consider the absorption of Sikkim or the low-burn interventionism in Nepal and Bhutan. A turnaround in New Delhi’s Himalayan doctrine would lead to an easier relationship with the sovereign neighbours, helping their evolution into stable democracies. It would also contribute to making India’s own Himalayan hinterland, from the Northeast to Kashmir, more part of the national mainstream.

For all of this to transpire, the New Delhi establishment has to shake off the inertia in its strategic thinking of the Himalayan range. It must simultaneously understand the desires of the Himalayan societies and consider the new-found interdependence of the Indian and Chinese economies, and also consider ways to ensure India’s security beyond the number of boots on the ground along the mountain frontier. Out-of-the-box statecraft would bring dividends in peace of mind, savings and economic growth.

Countenancing China

Without doubt, India is challenged today in responding to a China that is coming on strong from the shores of Rakhine in northern Myanmar to Gwadar on the Balochistan coast. There is visible activism in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and now Nepal, with what is touted as a goods train service specifically meant for Nepal connecting Gansu’s Lanzhou to Tibet’s Shigatse inaugurated on May 11.

New Delhi’s Himalayan apprehension has to do with an ascendant China, and the West may see this worry as assisting its own ‘containment’ policy. The Chinese challenge is real, but the ground has shifted with advances in the transport, infrastructure and geopolitics of High Asia, enough to demand a policy departure. New Delhi will have to calibrate its position between competing with, engaging, and strategically challenging Beijing. In doing so, it should consider the advantages of the planned trans-Himalayan infrastructural connections, which will ultimately help India’s economy link to the Chinese mainland.

Connectivity is what India’s foreign policy establishment has been championing for the South Asian economies, and there is no reason why it should not be extended north by northeast, to Tibet and all the way to the Chinese mainland. Furthermore, the societal and economic transformations introduced by the trans-Himalayan opening may finally help pry open Beijing’s grip on Tibetan society, nothing else having worked over six decades of increasing control and demographic inundation.

The Nepal Himalaya

Beyond its China worries, New Delhi’s strategic interests in the Himalaya include several other elements, from hydroelectricity generation to the need for storage reservoirs in the deep valleys providing water for irrigation, flood control and urban use by the growing Gangetic middle class. All of which pushes New Delhi towards constricting the sovereign manoeuvrability of Nepal and Bhutan, besides foisting onerous policies on its own Himalayan provinces.

In the case of Nepal, New Delhi’s worries also include the unique open border and the two decades of unsettled politics continuing to this day in Kathmandu. New Delhi’s exasperation with Kathmandu often has it acting under the radar, as in its attempt to influence the writing of the new Constitution and its overt show of unhappiness with the final product.

But what has Indian analysts most exercised presently is Beijing’s serenade to Kathmandu, which took a dramatic new pitch during Prime Minister’s K.P. Oli’s state visit to China in late March. It was the five-month-long blockade following the promulgation of the Constitution that gave Mr. Oli the public backing to conclude agreements with China on matters which had earlier been India’s exclusive domain — third-country transit, high-volume trade, and cross-border highways, railways, optic cables and transmission lines.

Mr. Oli was still in Beijing when the Ministry of External Affairs spokesman in South Block felt constrained to put out a lengthy list of links that bind Nepal to India, including 26 customs points, the roti-beti ties, and so on. That rendition was surprising and superfluous, as the economies and societies of Nepal and India are indeed intertwined across the open border. But that should not prevent Kathmandu from developing associations with China’s supercharged economy — why grudge Nepal what India itself is pursuing with China on a vastly larger scale?

Many do not know that, historically, the Himalayan range was never a barrier to commerce, with local societies trading through the river valleys cutting into Tibet. Kathmandu Valley was better linked commercially to Lhasa than to the Gangetic plain, and it was the Tibet trade that contributed to the enormous wealth and cultural achievements of the Valley kingdoms.

It was only the colonial penetration of the subcontinent in the mid-nineteenth century that pivoted the economy southwards. The Newar traders in Lhasa lost out further with the Chinese takeover of Tibet in the 1950s, and only now are Kathmandu’s businesses actively reaching out to the Chinese mainland — air links have expanded to Chengdu, Guangzhou, Kunming and Lhasa.

There is no need to fear that China will replace India’s pre-eminent role in Nepal’s economy, however. For one thing, the Chinese mainland and ports are 3,000 km away, as compared to 1,000 km to Kolkata. Meanwhile, the open Nepal-India border is a prize of shared history to be nurtured by both countries. In sociopolitical terms, Kathmandu’s civil society enjoys a comfort zone with India that the taciturn Chinese state cannot match.

Kathmandu’s main port of call will remain Haldia in West Bengal as of now, and Visakhapatnam and Krishnapatnam in Andhra Pradesh and Mongla and Chittagong in Bangladesh in the future. But there is no doubt that new possibilities have now opened up to the north and northeast, and with relief one can say that a blockade of Nepal, devastating the economy and impoverishing the people, is now impossible.

Game changer

The arrival of Qingzang Railway from the Chinese mainland to the Tibetan plateau in 2006 has been the game changer, and the line has already been extended to Shigatse town and is ploughing westward and closer to Nepal’s border points. The railway makes the transfer of goods from the mainland economically feasible in a way that had never before been contemplated. It is set to create new commercial dynamics, especially as the lacking southward highways are constructed through Nepal’s mid-hills.

Nepal and China have agreed to complete the Kyerung Highway starting northwest of Kathmandu, which would allow descent from the Tibetan plateau to the Gangetic plain in less than a day. There is also agreement to build the Kimathanka Highway down the Kosi river valley in eastern Nepal, which would bring the Shigatse/Lhasa railheads close to Bangladeshi and Indian ports.

What all this means is that India would do well to add economics and commerce to its strategic vision of the Himalayan region. If New Delhi loosens up on Nepal with this understanding, it may be surprised to find that it retains Kathmandu as a steadfast partner while gaining market access to Tibet and the east Asia mainland through Nepal’s all-weather routes.

The march of economy, and the metaphorical reduction of the geostrategic height of the Himalaya, requires New Delhi to update its Himalayan doctrine. The new ‘Nepali-Chiniya bhai-bhai’ atmospherics, which is largely the result of New Delhi’s own recent obduracy, can actually be turned to advantage in formulation of the new policy.

Leaving Nepal free to develop its international outreach, as a country that can never afford to go against India’s security interests, would be a great way to begin to define the new doctrine. The Himalayan region today represents a realm of opportunity more than competition, which requires New Delhi to be able to compartmentalise the commercial and the geostrategic.

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