An adorned Gurung girl wearing traditional costume and ornaments is seen during Tamu Lhosar or Losar (New Year) parade in Kathmandu, Nepal December 30, 2016. Members of the community in Nepal celebrate Tamu Lhosar or Losar with a feast and various cultural programs to usher in the Gurung community's year of the bird. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

Relations between Nepal and China, which have witnessed a remarkable warming in recent years, are poised to deepen further. For the first time ever, soldiers from the two countries will be participating in a month from now in joint military exercises.

Named ‘Pratikar-I’, the joint exercises will focus on counter-terrorism and disaster management and will be held in northern Nepal.

In a bid to allay Indian apprehensions, Nepali officials are downplaying the significance of the joint exercises. Nepal’s ambassador to India, Deep Upadhyay, told Times of India that the exercises would be on a very “small scale.” “There’s really not much in it,” he said, pointing out that Nepal had participated in similar exercises with other countries too.

This is true. Nepal has engaged in joint military exercises with India and the United States.

As with China, Nepal’s joint exercises with India, which are known as the ‘Surya Kiran exercises’, focus on counter-terrorism and disaster management. India and Nepal have engaged in ten rounds of joint exercises so far.

However, the India-Nepal joint exercises are far larger in terms of the number of soldiers participating in it. The two sides field a battalion each in these exercises. Indeed, of all the military exercises that India engages in with other countries, it is the exercises with Nepal that are the largest in terms of troop participation.

In contrast, the Sino-Nepali joint exercises are at the platoon level.

Joint military exercises are only a small part of the enormous military co-operation between India and Nepal, which includes supply of military equipment (India is Nepal’s largest supplier), training and other exchanges. The 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship provides the foundation for India-Nepal bilateral relations. Not only does the treaty tie Nepal’s security to that of India but also, it regulates Nepal’s acquisition of military equipment; Nepal can acquire military hardware from India or through the territory of India, but the latter requires the Indian government’s “assistance and agreement.”

Nepal’s upcoming military exercises with China do not violate the 1950 Treaty. And although India has not officially responded to the upcoming joint exercises and is unlikely to do so, it would be worried as Sino-Nepali co-operation has grown at a rapid pace in recent years especially in the military realm. Military co-operation has surged since 2005.

In the past, India’s influence in Nepal was enormous and unchallenged. This is changing with China entering areas which were once monopolized by India. In 2015, for instance, when an economic blockade along Nepal’s border with India paralyzed the Nepali economy, China stepped in to provide Kathmandu with a lifeline. It supplied it with fuel, marking the end of India’s decades-old monopoly over fuel sales to Nepal.

Although the Sino-Nepal joint military exercises are not quite as path breaking as the fuel supply deal, still it is important as it marks yet another breaching of India’s strategic space by China.

Relations between India and Nepal deteriorated in 2015-16 when Delhi’s comments on Nepal’s new constitution and its alleged role in the blockade ruffled feathers in Kathmandu. India, in turn, was unhappy with Nepal’s tilt towards China that resulted in the two countries finalizing a string of infrastructure deals, including one for a cross-border railway.

That tilt was corrected to some extent with the ouster of the ‘pro-China’ Nepali Prime Minister, K P Sharma Oli. His successor, Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka ‘Prachanda’ promised to strike a balance in Nepal’s relations with India and China and appears to have taken some steps to ease Indian anxieties over Nepal’s proximity to China.

Prachanda’s attempted balancing of Nepal’s relations with India and China or rather, his correction of the earlier tilt towards China, has not gone down well in China. In an article in Global Times, Xu Liang, Executive Director of the Indian Studies Center from Beijing International Studies University, points out that when China supported Nepal during the blockade, the latter responded by signing deals with Beijing but with India-Nepal relations improving thereafter, Nepali politicians have put the country’s relations with China “on the back burner.” “Obviously, China feels tricked,” Xu argues, going on to accuse India of “interfering (in) Sino-Nepalese ties every once in a while.”

Indeed, China was reportedly peeved with Prachanda making India the destination of his first visit abroad as prime minister, culminating in Beijing cancelling the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Kathmandu. China is said to be concerned over the fate of its projects in Nepal following the recent upswing in India-Nepal relations. It is likely to have expressed this concern to the Nepali government.

The planned joint military exercises must be seen in this context. It is part of Prachanda’s efforts to balance Nepal’s relations with India and China and probably aimed at mollifying a miffed Beijing. Consequently, when China proposed joint military exercises with Nepal, the latter accepted.

Sudha Ramachandran

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bengaluru, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues.

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