If India and China can’t cooperate in Nepal, can they in a more complex Afghanistan?
Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post (SCMP) said in a report on Saturday, May 12, that Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the construction of a big hydropower project in Nepal during his latest visit to the Himalayan country as part of New Delhi's strategy to counter China's influence in its backyard.
Modi, along with Nepal's Prime Minister KP Oli, laid the foundation stone of the US$1.4 billion Arun III hydropower plant backed by India which many believe could mark a crucial turn in the development of Nepal.
Modi said after its inauguration that the project is one of the biggest that Nepal has seen and apart from jobs, it would also create economic and commercial opportunities in the country.
According to SCMP: "The plant is the first of five mega hydropower projects, two of which are backed by Chinese companies, to begin construction, which marks a diplomatic win for India."
China has sped up its economic ventures in Nepal in recent years, leaving India behind and influencing Kathmandu to tilt more towards Beijing in the recent years. In 2017, Chinese firms committed investment in Nepal worth more than US$8.3 billion as against India's commitment of US$317 million. Nepal has also joined China's much-vaunted Belt and Road Initiative ignoring India's concerns and these events have conveyed the message that India is gradually losing influence on its old ally Nepal. The coming to power of a not-so India-friendly Oli to power with a strong mandate who has also been asserting a Nepali nationalism has strengthened the view.
Modi's latest visit to Nepal and inaugurating the hydropower plant projects that India, too, is ready to back big projects in its northern neighbour to counter China's influence.
If India & China still have mutual suspicion in Nepal, what's the effect of Wuhan?
Now, the question is: Why do India and China have to compete for geopolitical influence in Nepal and not cooperate for the impoverished country's common welfare?
According to experts, there is clearly no synergy between India and China at a level which can see such triangular cooperation taking shape between New Delhi, Beijing and Kathmandu. If that is the case still after the much publicised informal meeting between Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing last month meant to break the ice, then how come did the two countries pledged to cooperate in Afghanistan?
At the Wuhan meeting between the two heads of state, India and China agreed to work jointly on an economic project in Afghanistan, a country which offers a far more complex geopolitical scenario than Nepal and where reconciling the interests of India and China amid several factors look almost an impossible task.
For those who believe cooperation between India and China in Nepal seems to be an equation which is not feasible as long the sun rises in the east, the mindset needs to change. If Modi and Jinping are really thinking about taking their countries' bilateral relations to a new height by commencing cooperation in matters that are far more significant in today's global conditions, then they need to treat cooperation in Nepal as one of the founding stones towards that noble goal. Especially for India, there is no point in competing with China to display the depth of its pocket for it can never win that race against a much powerful Beijing.
Instead of a more complex Afghanistan, India & China need to first cooperate in Nepal
Instead, it can treat Nepal as a laboratory where a simple cooperative project with China can achieve success without much trouble and both New Delhi and Beijing can take confidence from that to give further wings to the Wuhan talks. If they are sincere about a good relation, that is.
If the two big neighbours can meet Nepal's energy demands by making investments in its hydroelectric sector and also work towards linking the landlocked country through long-range communication networks, it will also see Nepal's growth as an economy and help India address the hurt sentiments of the common Nepali people in the wake of the over-enthusiastic rescue efforts post the earthquakes in 2015 and also an alleged blockade imposed on the country later that year.
Modi was also seen making attempts to address Nepal's emotions by saying the people of Nepal have self-esteem higher than Mount Everest. It is much easier if the same job is done through making commitments towards the country's development, even if it means joining hands with China, than saying flattering words that can be violated at any turn of event. Solid work on the ground does a better service to foreign policy instead.