India and China Jostle For Himalayan Influence

Nepalese Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s scheduled visit to New Delhi next week is seen further accelerating the strategic race played out between China and India to gain more influence in the Himalayas.

Infrastructure development has become the latest inning in the great game between the two Asian giants, with Nepal, still one of the world’s poorest countries with per-capita GDP of only US$729, emerging as an unlikely beneficiary.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to reciprocate with his own trip to Nepal within the next few months. Chinese President Xi Jinping is also finally to make good on his long-talked-about visit Kathmandu later this year, sources said.

No doubt both Beijing and New Delhi are expected to dole out goodies aimed at beefing up Nepal’s infrastructure, which is still reeling from the aftermath of the earthquake three years ago.

Already, China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has several projects planned in Nepal, some of which have hit roadblocks (such as the now-scrapped US$2.5 billion 1200-megawatt Budhi Gandaki hydro project).

Retying Ties

Besides aiming to mend ties that have suffered after India’s border blockade of 2015, Modi is expected to further elaborate on India’s own plan for Nepal. During his high-profile visit to the world's only Hindu state, Modi had announced an ambitious “highway, information technology and transmission lines” (HIT) for Nepal, which is seen as an Indian answer to Belt and Road.

Indeed, connectivity and conflict resolution formed the core agenda at the 3rd annual Himalayan Consensus Summit held in Kathmandu last week.

The gathering was attended by top diplomats from China, Switzerland, the EU, the US, the UK and Bangladesh as well as members from the private sector, who spoke on a wide-range of such subjects as energy, ecological and cultural preservation, disaster insurance and mobile payments.

Alongside the issues of sustainable development, opportunities and risks related to BRI formed part of the agenda.

Former UN diplomat Kul Gautam is bullish on the prospects of the Himalayan region finally shrugging off the infrastructure gap and adopting outward-looking policies that would “unleash connectivity for inclusive growth.”

Intraregional Trade Weak

Due to poor infrastructure and parochial policies, intra-regional trade in South Asia currently accounts for less than 2 percent of their total trade while the same ratio is as high as 40 percent in the regional blocs of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

India’s former foreign secretary Nirupama Rao remains guardedly optimistic, as she asked: “Can a Himalayan Economic Corridor blend Prime Minister Modi’s idea of highways, IT and transmission lines (HIT) with China’s BRI to create a strategic economic corridor that promotes Himalayan Connectivity and regional integration?”

She reiterated the Indian position that India has “legitimate reasons” for its reservations about BRI, pointing to some projects such as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that covers territories contested by India and China.

China’s ambassador to Nepal Yu Hong aimed to dispel some of the myths over the BRI, including concerns that they may not be entirely transparent or fair to the locals.

The BRI-related projects, she said, would be based on “market principles, joint consultation and equal-footed, inclusive and beneficial to all.” She further highlighted the concept of "ecological civilization" that China has made part of its constitution.

Looming Water Crisis

While the Himalayas may be a political footnote, ecological stress in the Himalayas and Hindu Kush region, with a population of nearly 240 million, has direct bearing on the world.

For one, there is a looming water crisis ahead, with nearly 40 percent of the world's population expected to face water shortages within the next two decades. Nearly 1.9 billion living downstream depend on the Himalayas and its rivers for water

Alongside ecological crisis, one of the key challenges is to retain the people in the mountains (Nepal continues to be the major exporter of migrant laborers) through sustainable development models, for which peace and security is essential.

The impoverished and landlocked region is not immune from potential conflicts, and as Nicholas Rosellini, resident coordinator of UNDP China, pointed out, “conflict and lack of development share a reciprocal relationship.”

As development economist Mahendra P Lama puts it: “Burgeoning gaps in prosperity, unprecedented stress on natural resources and governance failures are all sources of inter-group conflict.”

Little Trust Between India, China

It does not help that India and China rarely trust each other, and the two Asian giants are only expected to jostle for more foothold in the region. (The Doklam military stand-off between the two nations over a Bhutan border road serves as a chilling reminder of what could potentially go wrong.)

The private sector can help think of ways of reducing political temperature in the Himalayan region so that opportunities are not lost due to conflicts, according to Laurence Brahm, the founder of the Himalayan Consensus Institute.

"If China and India were to seek commonalities over differences, it would be a strategic partnership for the long term in the benefit for everyone in the Himalayas," he said.

It seems the region as diverse as Himalayas would need novel solutions to clear the fog of mistrust. Former diplomat Rao, for one, proposed an idea of “Himalayan Charter” that would aim to narrow the differences and potentially “enunciate what it means to be truly Himalayan.”

A consortium of think tanks, supported by the UNDP, is slated to meet in Beijing in June for the first “Silk Road Dialogues” to seek consensus for sustainable development and conflict resolution in the region.

Tsering Namgyal contributes regularly to Asia Sentinel