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Is India-Nepal-China trilateral Cooperation possible?

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  • May 15, 2013
    Round Table

    Chairperson: Dr Arvind Gupta, DG, IDSA

    Amb K.V.Rajan, Former Ambassador to Nepal
    Maj Gen. Ashok Mehta, Security Analyst
    Dr Abanti Bhattacharya, Associate Professor, East Asian Studies, Delhi University
    Dr Nihar Nayak, Associate Fellow, IDSA

    Event Report

    Pushpa Kamal Dahal a.k.a. Prachanda, the chairman of United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), visited India during April 27-30. Before coming to India, he also visited China. During his visits to China and India, Prachanda proposed a trilateral cooperation between India, Nepal and China without elaborating on the nature of this trilateral cooperation and the issues that need to be discussed within this framework. The Round Table was organised to examine and analyse:

    • What does this trilateral arrangement entail?
    • Is there consensus in Nepal on India-China-Nepal trilateral?
    • What is the purpose behind such a proposal?
    • Does it impact India’s security?
    • Can India, Nepal and China cooperate in developmental projects?
    • What would be the larger geo-political implications of such an engagement? Will this bring strain in India’s Nepal policy?

    Following are the major points that emerged during the discussion:

    • There existed quadrilateral relationship between India-China-Nepal-Tibet in the pre-independence period. Therefore, it is not a new concept. Prachanda came out with this trilateral cooperation proposal first in October 2010, again in November 2012 and finally in April 2013, after his China visits. Cooperation in its present form seems to be Lumbini centric. Since India has not been very positive on Chinese involvement in Lumibni, Prachanda might have visited India to generate New Delhi’s support.
    • While Chinese response to this proposed trilateral arrangement was neither positive nor negative, Nepalese media came out with mixed reactions. There is a strong domestic support to this proposal in Nepal. India’s response to the proposal is lukewarm; it is felt that India should not join the trilateral cooperation and should maintain the status quo for the time being.
    • There are two distinct views on India’s response to the proposed trilateral cooperation. While one view considers the possible security implications of the proposed trilateral concept, the other view looked into the economic rationality behind the concept. It was argued that given the porous border between India and Nepal and the close proximity between the two countries, presence of large number of Chinese workers or security personnel to safeguard the Chinese commercial projects in Nepal would have security concerns for India.
    • India also needs to identify its strategic concern in Nepal. China’s Nepal policy suggests that principal factor driving its Nepal policy is internal, that is, to quell the Tibetan unrest. The new periphery strategy has mainly been devised to address the domestic security concerns through periphery consolidation. Trilateral cooperation will enable China to expand its influence in South Asia, marginalizing India’s pre-eminent position in the subcontinent. Hence, trilateral cooperation would come at the cost of India’s security, economy and diplomacy.
    • Therefore, it was argued that the security concern of this proposed trilateral should not be ignored. India has already fought a war with China and the Chinese intrusions have not sent a positive signal. In this regard, a trilateral co-operation involving China is not possible until and unless there is trust among all the three parties. Therefore, time is still not right to implement the proposal and India needs to wait and Watch.
    • On the other hand, the other view argued that instead of focussing too much on the security implications, it is important to acknowledge the economic rationality behind the proposed trilateral concept. Given the strong support in Nepal to the proposed trilateral cooperation, India can consider certain joint ventures especially in the hydropower sector. India cannot stop Chinese engagement in Nepal. Hence, it is better for India to participate in the trilateral arrangement and be a part of the projects, instead of allowing Chinese to be their own. Private sectors, which do not have security implications, should be encouraged to take part.
    • India should reconsider its economic engagement with Nepal given the fact that Chinese are already there in Nepal. Yet, China is not contributing much to the Nepalese economy as most of the projects which are financed by them are based on loans than grants. Moreover, Chinese get their own labourers to work on these projects and they do not employ local workers. India can consider all these aspects and provide Nepal those economic benefits which are not provided by China. It was pointed out that there are examples of success stories of India-China joint cooperation in a third country particularly in the energy sector. Although, in case of Nepal it seems difficult, the previous success stories of India-china cooperation in third country situations should be considered.
    • It was mentioned that during the China-India-Nepal trilateral meeting in Kathmandu in January, Nepal expressed its desire to be less dependent on India so that it can maintain an independent foreign policy. There was also an undercurrent suggestion to revise the 1950 treaty. In this background, it is argued that discussion on the proposed trilateral cooperation should be encouraged at the track II level, if not at the level of track I.
    • This is an idea ahead of its time. It will take some time to take off. Therefore, India should not be too alarmed or too enthusiastic about it. Unless Nepal gets its acts together and both India and Nepal reach certain level of maturity, there is not much to achieve from the trilateral cooperation.
    • India needs to revisit its diplomacy. India and China should freely talk to each other about avoiding actions in each other’s neighbourhood. Discussion on trilateral arrangement can provide such platform to both the countries to have frank discussions. India has a problem with Chinese involvement as it has long standing border dispute with china.
    • Nepal should realise its limitations. It should not unnecessarily try to play a bigger diplomatic role and hurry into this trilateral cooperation without understanding its implications. Rather, it should concentrate in protecting its own interests.
    • Nepal has special relations with India, by engaging China it should not put at stake the unilateral advantage it is currently receiving from India. Both India and China can benefit from prosperous Nepal, but it will take some time. Nepal should also encourage interdependency. If India is dependant on Nepal for energy or other resources it will automatically provide Nepal with leverages over India. This can be converted into mutually beneficial relations.

    Report prepared by South Asia Centre