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Is there a China hand in the India-Nepal border spat?

A historically warm friendship between neighbours has, of late, taken on a more confrontational hue, as a long-standing cartographic dispute, following India's inauguration of a 75-km stretch of land to Lipulekh, a strategic vertex across the boundaries of India, Nepal and China, has come to the fore.

Following Defence Minister Rajnath Singh's signing off on the road to act as a route for Indian pilgrims to access Kailash Mansarovar, the Nepalese government issued an official complaint noting that the track encroached upon Nepal's territory.

The matter has now threatened to turn into a regional flashpoint after General MM Naravane remarked, “There is a reason to believe that they might have raised the issues at the behest of someone else...”, leading many to speculate that the Army Chief was implying the involvement of China in coercing Nepal to effect unwarranted geopolitical pressure on India.

Nepal also released a new map last week that drew a sharp response from India's Ministry of External Affairs that claimed it included portions of Indian territory.

The history of the Kalapani dispute

The Kalapani-Limpiadhura-Lipulekh trijunction located on the banks of the Kali River has, for several decades now, been a highly disputed issue that finds its origins in the Sugauli Treaty between the East India Company and Nepal's then Gorkha monarch, King Prithvi Narayan Shah.

As per the fifth article of the treaty, “The Rajah of Nepal renounces for himself, his heirs, and sucessors all claim to or connection with the countries lying to the west of the river Kali and engages never to have any concern with those countries or inhabitants thereof.”

This was how the River Kali came to become the boundary between India and Nepal, however, over the last century, there has been little consensus over the source of the river, leading to a cartographic dispute first highlighted by the Nepalese government in 1998.

That being said, both nations have, in the past, expressed a desire to find an amicable resolution to the problem, with a high-level committee set up during the late External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj's visit to Nepal in July 2014. Despite PM Modi's insistence that a renewed push was being made to settle the dispute, there has been little progress on this front in the last half of the decade.

Beijing's growing influence over Kathmandu

General MM Navarane's suggestion that a third party – China – could have a role in what has historically been a bilateral dispute, comes at a moment when Sino-Indian relations are tense. The issue has arisen against the backdrop of recent clashes between the Indian and Chinese armies, after the latter claimed that Indian military personnel had trespassed onto Chinese territory.

However, political scientists have noted that the regional landscape has changed markedly since the Nepalese economic crisis, believed to have stemmed from food, fuel and medicine shortages, that the tiny nation that blamed India for.

In desperation, Nepal turned to Beijing for help, and many have since grown concerned over the increasing influence that China now wields over Kathmandu. In fact, following President Xi Jinping's informal summit with PM Modi late last year, the Chinese president imemdiately flew to Kathmandu for a short visit, to announce a US$493 million aid package to Nepal.

A border railway project between the two countries, that will provide China better access to Nepal's southern border with India, has also been approved. The project is seen as another piece in the grander jigsaw of China's monumental Belt and Road Initiative.

According to some reports, the cost of the project could lie in the region of US$3 billion, the bulk of which will be financed by China, owing to the fact that Nepal, one of the poorest countries in the region, has a total GDP of just US$28 billion.

Some authors have noted that the project could see Nepal firmly lodged into the controversal Chinese debt trap, further endangering the nation to the political and economic influence of Beijing.

The implications of China's improved relations with Kathmandu has been a point of concern for several political commentators in recent times, who have viewed the burgeoning ties between the two nations as dictated by China's overarching strategy of encirclement against India.

Amid claims that Nepal Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli has turned brazenly pro-China, worries over a transformation of Nepal's foreign policy posture regarding India can no longer be ignored.

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