The humanitarian aid that nuclear rivals India and China rushed to Nepal after the devastating earthquake on April 25th, in which more than 8,000 people are now confirmed dead, had complex geopolitical undertones as well as a practical benefit.
Both countries have deployed hundreds of rescuers and sniffer dogs, as well as specialised equipment, to the wrecked Himalayan state. They have dispersed tonnes of relief material, and even worked in tandem to extricate people trapped under rubble.
But their respective relief operations, backed by military personnel, represent a wider strategic gambit in the disaster-ridden state, where both countries have been jostling to gain influence. India, however, appears to be losing the edge it gained in responding within hours of the earthquake, as resentment has set in over its media coverage.
The hashtag GoHomeIndianMedia topped the social media trend in Nepal last weekend, with tens of thousands of tweets. Nepalis complained the coverage by Indian television was insensitive and jingoistic.
They also complained India’s relief efforts were aimed at evacuating its nationals stranded in Nepal, and that the deployment of its soldiers in the guise of providing relief was a strategy to “colonise’” their country.
Although officials in Delhi and Beijing denied any rivalry or strategic manoeuvres, there is no denying the Indian and Chinese aid initiatives are part of their regional competition.
“The largesse displayed by both sides in assisting Nepal is more than just aid, irrespective of what they claim,” security analyst Brig Arun Sahgal of the Forum for Strategic Initiative in New Delhi said. It’s part of a deeper plan to attain long-term leverage in the state, he added.
India has long considered Nepal not only a Hindu-majority state like itself, with commonality in culture, language and food habits, but a part of its wider strategic ambit. Over the past year Nepal has emerged as a key component in Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s policy of strengthening civilian, economic and strategic ties with all its seven neighbours in the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation. Bilateral ties with Nepal are even closer.
More than three million Nepalis live in India, as do tens of thousands of Indians in Nepal, and visa-free travel prevails between the neighbours.
The Indian army continues a centuries-old tradition of annually recruiting Gurkha soldiers from Nepal, as well as disbursing billions of rupees each month in pension payments to retired veterans. Indian consumer items such as cars, motorcycles, engineering and electrical goods, textiles, pharmaceuticals, alcohol and even cigarettes have flooded Nepal.
Over decades entrepreneurs from India’s trading Marwari community have cornered major businesses across Nepal, such as tourism and agriculture, and invested little or nothing locally. “Land-locked Nepal knows it is totally reliant on India for its trade and transit routes and resents the dependency,” Sahgal said.
It is this resentment that over the past two decades has resulted in Kathmandu looking to China to neutralise India’s influence, he added.
India has done little to endear itself to Nepalis, who recall the months-long blockade of their country in 1989 by then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.
He seized upon the lapsed bilateral trade and transit treaty to press Kathmandu into submission after Nepal accepted a Chinese materials consignment. The blockade triggered bitterness towards India’s “Big Brother’” attitude and bilateral relations have stayed turbulent, with Nepal increasingly turning to Beijing not Delhi.
In 2014, China overtook India as the largest investor in Nepal, especially in the infrastructure and power sectors, with plans to extend rail and road across the Himalayas, to its borders with Nepal. These may eventually connect to Kathmandu, a possibility that has Indian security planners worried.
They fear encirclement by China, which has security, diplomatic and economic alliances with all of India’s immediate neighbours – Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – and further afield with Afghanistan, Iran and Burma .
Such projects are part of China’s strategic outreach, centred around its Silk Road Economic Belt initiative of facilitating trade in the region as part of its wider hegemonic ambitions. Chinese presence, however, is generally welcome in Nepal.