Resolving existing sub-regional tensions in the Himalayas

Published : 11 Aug 2020 09:03 PM | Updated : 07 Sep 2020 07:30 PM

It is unfortunate, but it is also true that the bordering regions between India and China, India and Pakistan, the contiguous sub-region between India and Nepal and the adjoining region between Bhutan and China are all in a state of flux. This has created international anxiety and also concern among countries in the sub-regions including Bangladesh.

The disputed Sino-Indian border, which stretches some 3,500km along some of the world's most rugged terrain, is in a state of instability after soldiers from the two countries clashed violently in June in the remote Galwan River Valley. 

Today, the two militaries remain poised eyeball-to-eyeball in Ladakh - a high-altitude desert of which China claims and controls a 43,000-square-kilometre chunk. Decades of negotiations between New Delhi and Beijing have not yielded a solution to their competing claims over 135,000 square kilometres of territory along the border. 

Geo-strategists have pointed out that the Chinese occupation of Indian-claimed territory and the killing of Indian soldiers has been a serious challenge for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his pursuit of the symbol of muscular Hindu nationalism. 

This opened up the Pandora Box which brought out allegations of political misjudgement and his efforts over the past few years in trying to befriend China’s leader President Xi Jinping despite US anxiety in this regard. 

The two have met in two "informal summits" at Wuhan in 2018 and in Chennai, in India, last year. Modi presented each of these meetings as heralding a new era of strategic cooperation with China.

These Indian efforts were carried on even though China repeatedly opposed India's bids for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which controls the world's export of nuclear materials. Beijing also ignored India's objections to building a China-Pakistan Economic Corridor through territory claimed by India.

Nevertheless, India till now has overlooked this and New Delhi has refrained from criticising Beijing openly over its measures undertaken against Taiwan and Hong Kong or even the Belt and Road Initiative that is not consistent with India's territorial claims.

One has noticed that though there has been a storm of criticism from the Indian opposition parties, Modi has carefully downplayed the Chinese intrusions. He has correctly permitted the military to handle matters. There have also been discussions between diplomats of both countries.

In 2017, India and China were engaged in a similar stand-off lasting more than two months in Doklam plateau, a tri-junction between India, China and Bhutan. 

India objected to China building a road in a region claimed by Bhutan. The Chinese stood firm. Within six months, Indian media reported that China has built a permanent all weather military establishment in that area. Consequently, this time, too, talks between the two sides are being seen as the only way forward - both countries have so much to lose in a military conflict.

As expected the United States is carefully monitoring the evolving dynamics. Washington has also signalled its readiness to stand alongside India.

On at least three occasions since the beginning of May, senior US political officials have pledged support to New Delhi, following up those offers through diplomatic channels. However, so far, Modi has responded to such overtures by pointing out that India is capable of handling the situation, by itself.

In the meantime, India has taken some strong measures related to the socio-economic dimensions which may be termed as economic retribution against China. This includes imposing restrictions on Chinese financial investments into India, blocking cash-rich Chinese companies from cheaply buying stakes in Indian firms financially distressed by the pandemic-related economic slowdown and also steps associated with the telecommunications industry. 

Indian economists have also pointed out that India needs to address the Sino-Indian trade imbalance, heavily weighted in China's favour by about US Dollar 56 billion in fiscal 2019. However, the trade interdependence between the two countries could impose a cost on Indian firms, particularly India's well-developed pharmaceutical industry which relies heavily on bulk drugs sourced from China.

Bangladesh continues to remain worried about what is happening between these two countries as it considers both of them as strategic partners in different fields. Bangladesh also believes that both sides, after this pandemic should have clear interest in prioritising their economic recovery and avoiding military escalation.

One needs to turn now to the growing tension between India and Nepal over a small land dispute.

India's latest diplomatic row with Nepal erupted on May 8 when New Delhi announced the inauguration of a Himalayan road link that passes through the disputed area of Kalapani. 

Under pressure from the opposition, civil society and a vociferous Nepali press, the government of Nepalese Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli issued a new political map of the country, showing Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura within its borders.

India claims that the new road to Lipulekh falls within Indian Territory. However, Nepal claims at least 17km of it lay on its land and the road crosses over to the east bank of the Mahakali River. It may be noted here that Nepal considers east of the river to be its territory based on the 1816 Sugauli Treaty signed with British colonial rulers.

In a series of articles, “Kantipur”, Nepal's biggest-selling newspaper, has also presented historical evidence of five British-Indian maps printed between 1819 and 1894 that show Limpiyadhura as the headwaters of the Mahakali; evidence of a 1958 voter list and the 1961 census by Nepali authorities in the region. Nepal, according to the relevant authorities, also possesses land registration records and tax receipts from the disputed territory.

This dispute originated in the November 2019 release of India's new political map, which showed Kalapani within India. This announcement saw Nepal's capital Kathmandu overwhelmed by protests, and Oli's government requested a high-level meeting to resolve the dispute. 

However, India has not been forthcoming in this regard. This has resulted in the two neighbours entering a new matrix of "cartographic war" with anger growing on both sides. This has also led to an unfortunate remark by the Indian army chief, General Manoj Mukund Naravane that has suggested that Kathmandu had acted at the behest of China.

Nepal's Defence Minister Ishwor Pokhrel has dubbed General Naravane's comments as an insult towards Nepal who has nearly 40,000 Nepali Gurkha soldiers working as part of 40 Indian battalions of the Indian Army.

Indian analysts have however noted that Oli's nationalist position appears to have been directed towards his domestic audience and he in all probability used the issue to deflect criticism from his government's handling of the pandemic, as well as to consolidate his beleaguered position within his party.

The evolving situation has acquired a further hurdle against the background of a simmering India-China border dispute along their de facto border - the Line of Actual Control (LAC) - a border that remains undemarcated. Furthermore, Nepal's ruling Communist Party government has reached out to China for investment and better connectivity in recent years, which has troubled India.

However, Beijing's ambiguous position that Kalapani is a bilateral issue between India and Nepal has been keenly watched by Nepali analysts since the current road is a result of its 2015 agreement with New Delhi. It may also be recalled that most of the 1,751km-long Nepal-India border was demarcated through a joint boundary committee except for Kalapani and Susta, which lies in southern Nepal.

Indian geo-analyst has correctly suggested in “The Hindu” that "India-Nepal border issues appear more easily solvable, so long as there is political goodwill and statecraft exercised on both sides. The way to move forward is to formally approve the strip maps, resolve the two remaining disputes, demarcate the entire India-Nepal boundary, and speedily execute the work of boundary maintenance".

One can only hope that the two sides will be able to resolve this altercation in the same manner as Bangladesh did with regard to its long standing land disputes with India. It will however require that both sides deal with the matter with understanding.

The latest problem to draw public attention within this troubled horizon has been a recent comment by the Bhutanese Embassy in India. They have pointed out that the boundary between Bhutan and China is still under negotiation between the two countries. Apparently, 24 rounds of Ministerial level boundary talks have already been, but the 25th has now been delayed due to coronavirus. Bhutan’s statement came amid reports of Chinese claims over biodiversity-rich 650 square km Sakteng wildlife sanctuary in eastern Bhutan. One can only hope that both sides will amicably settle the problem. We need such wildlife sanctuaries in South Asia. They are our best shields against climate variability and climate change.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good  governance.