Recently, I had an opportunity to meet the foreign minister of Nepal.
He offered me a rare glimpse into how his country survives and prospers between two big and powerful neighbors — China and India.
Historically, Nepal has close links with India. The two countries share a lot in common in ethnicity, culture and religion.
However, for geopolitical reasons, Nepal also has longstanding diplomatic relations with China, partly because of its proximity to Tibet and partly because China regards Nepal as a buffer with India.
Beijing maintains good and steady relations with Kathmandu as a matter of national security.
In reality, however, relations between Beijing and Kathmandu have been rocky, mainly because China supported the Maoist insurgency in Nepal during the 1960s and 1970s, resulting in a de facto alliance between Kathmandu and New Delhi at the time.
However, India-Nepal relations have gone sour in recent years.
In 2014, New Delhi openly supported demands for more autonomy by the Tharu people, an ethnic minority in southern Nepal who are ethnically and culturally identical to the Tharu tribes in northern India.
India’s move was seen by Nepal as interference in its internal affairs.
To make things worse, India imposed stricter border checks on Nepal’s trucks in order to force the country into accepting the demand of the Tharu people.
Even though the quasi-embargo lasted just a few months, it took a heavy toll on the Nepalese economy — 90 percent of the country’s imports and exports rely on access to Indian ports.
The embargo seriously undermined relations between Nepal and India and presented a golden opportunity for Beijing to strengthen ties with Kathmandu.
Beijing wasted no time capitalizing on the opportunity.
As a result, bilateral relations between China and Nepal have improved substantially over the past couple of years.
Today, China has replaced India as Nepal’s biggest trading partner, foreign investor and foreign aid donor.
However, things are not entirely bullish between China and Nepal. There are considerable variables in their bilateral relations in the days ahead.
Alarmed by China’s growing geopolitical influence in the region, the US and its western allies have stepped in and offered economic aid to Nepal to prevent it from getting too close with China.
It remains to be seen whether Kathmandu will give up New Delhi and welcome Beijing with open arms.
The golden rule of diplomacy is that in order to survive and prevail between two big, powerful neighbors, you have to hedge your bets.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept. 15
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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