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International relations

Nepal wages war of maps against India in disputed area

Himalayan territorial spat comes as Beijing and Delhi spar again over Ladakh

Nepal recently issued a map highlighting an area to its northwest long disputed with India. (Photo courtesy of Government of Nepal)

KATHMANDU -- Nepal has issued a detailed map for the first time of a disputed area to its far northwest that is controlled by India and touches China. 

Kathmandu's bold move came after Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh earlier this month inaugurated by video link a road connecting India to China via Lipulekh in a part of the Himalayan border area known as Kalapani -- which both India and Nepal claim as their own. 

The ancient route has long been used by Indian Hindu pilgrims traveling to the holy area of Kailash Mansarovar in Tibet.

New Delhi condemned Nepal's "unilateral" map issuance, and said "such artificial enlargement of territorial claim" was unacceptable.

Indian Army Chief Manoj Naravane stoked the fire by saying that Nepal's protest came "at the behest of someone else" -- a presumed reference to China.

The communist government of Nepal is led by K.P. Sharma Oli, who is considered close to China.

Kathmandu has made no secret of its displeasure over the road construction. On May 11, Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali summoned Vinay Mohan Kwatra, the Indian ambassador, and handed him a diplomatic note. Ordinary Nepalese, meanwhile, took to the streets in the capital and elsewhere to protest India's move.

The latest tension has an element of deja vu. In November, India released a map showing Kalapani as part of its sovereign territory. Nepal condemned India's unilateral act as unacceptable.

Some geopolitical analysts believe the dispute could flare up into something more serious than contradictory maps at a time when most of the world is distracted by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Nepal's domestic politics may also have played their part in fueling the tension. Oli has been fighting for his political life recently after rivals in his party mounted a challenge to his leadership.

The border row has provided a useful distraction following questions about the government's inept handling of the pandemic. "There's no doubt about Oli using this to his advantage," said Akhilesh Upadhyay, a former chief editor of The Kathmandu Post.

India may also be in need of distractions. "The road inauguration was an attempt of the Modi government to divert India's attention from [COVID-19] policy failures," Ashok Swain, an Indian professor at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Sweden's Uppsala University, told the Nikkei Asian Review. 

Activists protested outside the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu earlier in the month.    © Reuters

Swain said the controversy that followed the road's inauguration enabled the Modi government to show it was protecting Indian interests against the China-Nepal nexus. "Travel to Kailash Mansarovar further strengthens the regime's Hindu-nationalism credentials among its supporters," he said.

An 1816 treaty between Nepal and India, then ruled by the British, defines Nepal's western borders with India. However, the two countries disagree on the source of the border river. An Indian military outpost, believed to have been installed in the disputed area in 1962, remains a concern for Nepal.

In 1981, the two countries formed a joint technical committee to resolve all issues along the 1,880km  open and porous border. The committee was dissolved in 2008 after 182 maps had been drawn up to settle most of the issues. The two nations did not reach agreement on Kalapani and Susta in Nepal's south-central region.

The border dispute comes at a time of tensions and skirmishes between China and India along the border of India's Ladakh state. The historically prickly relationship between the two great nations is complicated by complex geopolitics and trade relations. Despite their strategic differences, India and China have also been developing business ties and various forms of cooperation.

"While they have synergistic relations, they are also strategic competitors," Upadhyay, now a senior fellow at the Institute of Integrated Development Studies, a think tank in Kathmandu, told Nikkei.

India's unease over China's revived claims in South Asia could cause more border clashes, according to some analysts.

Nepalese students protesting Indian territorial claims last year demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli.    © Reuters

"India's obsession with China in this case is hurting Nepal's national interest because India believes Nepal is doing this at  the instigation of China," said Upadhyay.

As China and India pursue a dual track policy of collaboration and confrontation, Swain believes less powerful nations like Nepal will have to brace themselves for some bumps.

"Smaller countries need to remember that whether two elephants fight or make love, the grass always suffers," he said. "So, it is important for countries like Nepal to keep their policy based on national interest, and remain independent and nonaligned."

India's actions could work to China's advantage. "This attitude further pushes the Himalayan countries to China's side," he said. "The tussle over domination in the Himalayan region is going to make the open confrontation between China and India much worse." 

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