Nepal and Pakistan’s Budding Friendship Should it Concern India?
Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi paid a two-day official visit to Nepal from 4-5 March to congratulate his counterpart KP Sharma Oli for his recent appointment as the new PM of Nepal after the historic provincial and state elections. This was the first official visit by a Pakistani PM to Nepal after a gap of 24 years.
In 1994, the then PM Benazir Bhutto had travelled to Kathmandu on a bilateral visit. Nawaz Sharif visited Nepal to attend the 18th SAARC Summit in 2014.
Oli, on his part, extended a warm welcome to Abbasi, who was accorded the Guard of Honour at the Army Pavilion at Tundikhel ground at the heart of the capital city — against the traditional practice of extending such an honour to visiting dignitaries at Tribhuwan International Airport in Kathmandu.
There were vibrant bilateral talks between the two sides to push forward Nepal-Pakistan relations, to revive the SAARC process and most significantly, to enhance regional connectivity through the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative), a flagship project under China.
In his meeting with Oli, Abbasi shared progress made with regard to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is being taken up under the BRI in which Pakistan is building huge infrastructures, such as roads, railways, ports, airports and grids.
Reportedly, Abbasi expressed happiness over Nepal joining the BRI, which he said is “a game changer for the whole of South Asia”, and suggested that Nepal could use the Gwadar Port in Balochistan province of Pakistan through Kerung-Tibet main railway line.
Nepal joined the BRI in May 2017 when Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda was the PM, although not much progress has been made in identifying and implementing the projects under BRI.
Terrorism figured prominently during the bilateral talks. Abbasi pointed out that Pakistan is facing isolation with regard to international terrorism, but the country is equally affected by the scourge of terror activities.
India should take serious note of this development. With Oli at the helm, India does not share the best of relations with Nepal. The border blockade which came in the wake of the Madhesi movement in Nepal in 2015 led to animosity between the Indian establishment and Oli’s UML party.
While India consistently said that the blockade was caused by the agitating groups on the Nepal side, the nationalist forces in Nepal believed it to be a form direct pressure from India, on the then Oli government, to give in to the Madhesi demands to reform the new constitution.
Given the unprecedented hardship faced by the Nepalese people during the blockade that lasted for five months, there was a surge of anti-India sentiment in Nepal. The public voting in the last polls in Nepal in favor of the communist parties have already compelled India to initiate dialogue with the new establishment in Kathmandu.
Oli is said to be close to China. With Nepal coming closer to Pakistan, an all-weather ally of China, India may be faced with a tough dilemma in its dealings with the Oli government. China has made strong in-roads into Nepal within a short span of time. With its direct involvement in the political affairs of Nepal now, China has emerged as a strong alternative partner for Nepal’s overall development.
Abbasi’s visit is thus, significant in two ways. First, it shows the keen desire of both Pakistan and China to develop close linkages with Nepal to negate Indian influence there. It is to be noted that Abbasi did not meet Opposition leaders of Nepali Congress and even former PM Baburam Bhattarai of Naya Shkati, both of whom are considered close to India.
The US and India want to partner up to build road connectivity in the Indo-Pacific region, as a kind of an alternative to the Chinese One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative. Such an initiative will invariably include Japan and Australia as well.
This has met with resistance from China. On the other hand, the US has put increasing pressure on Pakistan, even threatening to cut down military assistance, nd to crack down on terrorist safe havens on its territory. Pakistan may face isolation, as suggested by Abbasi in Kathmandu, and is thus, keen on seeking friendly ties with other South Asian countries with help from China.
Second, if Kathmandu cozies up to Pakistan (and therefore China), India may face tough competition to maintain a strategic space in Nepal, which it considers as its traditional sphere of influence.
It will be highly difficult for India to stop Chinese rise or contain it in a manner that will give a more strategic advantage to it. China will continue supporting Nepal’s development endeavours based on its capacity and expect to become a key stakeholder in the Himalayan country.