A five minutes read.
Chiran Shumsher Thapa
Life member of Nepal Council of World Affairs (NCWA)
Containment of disputes, the border issue between China and India, the partition of Kashmir between India and Pakistan, and the unrealized potential for irrigation of Nepal’s water for the Indian landmass have continued along with the simultaneous development of mutually beneficial relations of trade and, to a lesser extent, of investment, tourism, air links, people-to-people contact and participation in international fora. Movement of people, goods and services across prohibited jurisdictions will reduce mistrust advancing confidence-building measures which may open vistas for cooperation to tackle global problems, pandemics, the climate emergency, where the four countries situated at different locations of the Himalayan chain have vulnerabilities. All four countries, Nepal, China, India, and Pakistan have the human capital and the endowment to rise to the challenges for the welfare of their own peoples and the greater good of humanity.
At a time when all countries of the world are facing problems of global magnitude where no country is spared, wisdom lies in tackling with international cooperation where necessary problems posed by global pandemics and the climate emergency, among others, by mitigating, if not solving, forever issues which bedevil relations between nations. This holds for the biggest continent, Asia, as for other areas of the globe.
Looking at Sino-Indian relations, it appears that the border issue is the single big problem in their relations. Most of the long border is demarcated and delineated but problems arise in certain portions from time to time. The two countries have low-level conflict without resorting to firearms using slingshots, shoving soldiers of the other nation with bellies and even resorting to fistfights! This is hardly the warfare between two of the strongest military powers in Asia and in the world. It was said of the Schleswig-Holstein boundary dispute in the nineteenth century between Germany and Denmark that of three people who understood the contentious issues, one died after, another lost his mind, and the third one, possibly Britain’s foreign secretary, forgot what the contention was! There may be elements paralleling the nature of the nineteenth century dispute in the India China border but as both Germany and Denmark now work closely in the European Union and the Schleswig-Holstein border issue is a thing of the past, is it too much to hope that the Sino-Indian border dispute will continue to be contained while moving kilometer to kilometer toward a solution satisfactory to both sides.
In the boundary dispute India claims Aksai Chin under Chinese jurisdiction and China claims Arunachal Pradesh under Indian administration as south Tibet. There have I believe been feelers towards accepting the reality on the ground through dropping of claims by both sides. Be that as it may, an imaginative attempt at defusing the claims would lie in India giving visa facilities to residents of Aksai Chin and China doing the same to residents of Arunachal Pradesh. Both China and India have highly-developed computer and digital facilities which could accurately report the numbers and names of visa claimants but this would, if carried over some period, while not affecting the claims of the governments of the two countries, benefit the residents of both territories with ability to visit the neighboring country. China has been known to have proposed imaginative solutions even on issues such as Taiwan, while laying down clear red lines and India has solved some contentious issues such as those of enclaves/exclaves with Bangladesh and maritime issues with Sri Lanka in the past. Countries which can maintain peace and tranquility for long periods on a border thousands of kilometers long can surely rise to making confidence building measures which could benefit the inhabitants of territories in contentious claims. At a time when the border issue between China and the erstwhile Soviet Union led even to armed hostilities, the late King Birendra hoped in his first speech to a nonaligned summit in Algeria in 1973 a peaceful resolution of the long border between the largest countries of the world. Twenty, thirty years later this has come to pass. It is not unreasonable to expect over time some resolution between the only two countries with a billion-plus population.
Both India and Pakistan agree that the partition of Kashmir is the ‘core issue’ between them. While much of the Indian subcontinent had been partitioned to the mutual satisfaction of the two countries, with India administering two-thirds of the Kashmir area and Pakistan administering about a third, a confidence-building measure of benefit to the people inhabiting the partitioned region would be in allowing the inhabitants under the other country’s jurisdiction to visit all parts of partitioned Kashmir. This could be done through measures insuring that the visits are of a peaceful nature. As both Pakistan and India have a military and paramilitary presence among the densest anywhere, visits of a peaceful nature would not allow for hostile encounters, let alone terrorism of any kind. Providing visa facilities to the inhabitants under the other country’s jurisdiction may be practical after some years of visits with no hostile encounters, suspicious or actual. This would build confidence between the two jurisdictions with further moves towards improving life for the inhabitants without necessarily changing the claims of the contending parties while possibly leading to talks on security and over time mutually agreed-upon territorial adjustments. What is advocated is movement of people, goods, services which may lead to a consideration of larger potential and territorial issues. People-to-people and peaceful contact would be the forerunner of mitigation and over time even solution of problems left over from the partition of the subcontinent more than seven decades earlier. This would also move the regional organization, SAARC, toward realizing the amity and cooperation envisaged and bring SAARC more in line with other regional organizations like ASEAN or even the European Union which with all their problems do cooperate to the satisfaction of all the constituent members. In the 8-nation SAARC, the lack of forward movement toward cooperation on a regional basis is the hostility between Pakistan and India for which above all the Kashmir issue is the main impediment.
Compared to India-Pakistan and China-India issues, the problems between Nepal and India are certainly less hostile and more cooperative, even though on trade and other interactions of a peaceful nature, China-India relations continue to be cooperative, such that China is the country from which India imports the most goods. Unlike for Pakistan and India, China is the neighbor second to India for trade, as for both Pakistan and India, as for so many countries in the world, including the United States, China ranks first as the source of imports. As Nepal has huge trade deficits both with India and China, if commerce continues as it has for decades, remittances and international assistance will not suffice to plug the annual gap in trade flows. While policies could be formulated to mitigate and solve the bilateral trade problems, the more challenging issues lie in the bilateral problems posed by the open border, the asymmetric gap between arable land and water availability between Nepal and India and the promise it holds for both countries, the unrealized potential of religion and cultures and security issues. Taking the potential of irrigation first with the Indian landmass having more than 50% of arable land, but with less than 1500 cu.m. of water per capita, the prospect of cooperation in water use with Nepal which has less than 20% arable land but with more than 7500 km of water per capita most flowing into lower-riparian India are nature-determined. In a few years, India will overtake China as the most populous country in the world reaching more than 1.5 billion projected for 2035, when China will have less than 1.4 billion. Nepal’s population is projected to rise 3 million between 2021 and 2035 when it will reach 33 million. While Nepal-India cooperation has made some headway in hydroelectric generation and more recently trade in power, the cooperation in irrigation and flood control between the two Himalayan neighbors has not received the policy formulation due given the potential.
The open border between Nepal and India has had to be regulated from time to time. During elections in either country, flow of people has been controlled with the border closed to prevent elections from being hampered. Movement of returnees from India has necessitated health checks and clinical support at the border for the returnees’ health and control of infections as they travel to their home destinations. We have not seen the last of the COVID-19 pandemic and other infections will arise in the future, which is to say, circumstances will impose the necessity of control and regulation of people and goods for which a mutually agreed and organized border regulation is in the interest of trans-national movement.
On security matters, Nepal faces no hostile military danger from either of its two neighbours, China and India. Peace and friendship treaties with Asia’s two most powerful countries provide Nepal security not only in its geography but security also from any hostilities emerging from third countries which require the acquiescence if not the support of at least one neighbor. Nepal’s perception is not only that there are no security implications vis-à-vis her own relations but that the two neighbors themselves are unlikely to engage in military combat in the neighborhood while there will be competition and even confrontation in the region and elsewhere as is to be expected between two big countries successfully unlocking and realizing potential of great-power status in domains comprehending the economic, technological and military. China is already powerful and rich and India is powerful and expanding the income of its citizens. This determines the nature of their confrontations while also setting the contours of their neighborly coexistence and in areas of mutual benefit cooperation such as in peaceful commercial exchange.
Thus we see in Asia whether in big-power relations as between China and India or in regional relations as between India and Pakistan, and as between relatively small country Nepal and big power India, decades-long problems have been contained while co-operation on mutually beneficial relations of trade, and to a lesser extent investment, tourism, air links, people-to-people contact, participation in international fora have in some areas advanced while overcoming setbacks in the four countries on either side of the Himalayas situated at different locations of the mountain chain. All four countries, Nepal, China, India, and Pakistan have the human capital which exists for further development to confront the global challenges of pandemics, the climate crisis while containing the forever problems posed by geography and inherited from a colonial order. These challenges will be met regardless of whether border issues, the legacy of partition and the unlocked potential in the mismatch between the amount of arable land and water availability continue to be contained while fresh perspectives are yet to be brought into implementation focus. With mitigation of forever disputes as in other parts of the world, the global challenges could be met and overcome in the spirit of good-neighborly solidarity when, over time, on the ground kilometer by kilometer progress and in water cumec by cumec progress is made to the benefit of over a billion inhabitants and a large portion of the area of the largest continent, Asia.
# Thanks the distinguished author Mr. Thapa and the entire team of the Nepal Council of World Affairs (NCWA).
NCWA Journal provided by Buddhi Narayan Shrestha-Vice President NCWA: Ed. Upadhyaya.
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Ministry of Communications. (1970). Nonaligned Nations’ Summit Conference in
Algiers. The late King Birendra: Kathmandu.
Schleswig-Holstein. (2021). The New Statesman: London.