Following a relative period of calm, a few developments taking place in recent weeks in Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar, can together cause diplomatic and strategic worries to rise in New Delhi. Interestingly, the China factor is a common and recurring theme in all these developments.
A new government under the prime ministership of former Maoist guerrilla Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka Prachanda assumed office on December 26, 2022 in Kathmandu.
The new government is a coalition of the Nepal Communist Party (Maoist Centre), Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli’s Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist), Rashtriya Swatantra Party (RSP), Rashtriya Prajatantra Party (RPP), Janata Samajbadi Party (JSP), Janamat Party (JP), Nagrik Unmukti Party (NUP) besides four independent members.
The new PM and his government has been mainly propped up by Sharma Oli and his CPN (UML) with the latter’s pro-China position being quite well-known.
What could also be of concern for India is that a sub-clause of Clause 21 of the Common Minimum Programme of the newly-formed government which says, “The government will sue diplomatic channels for the peaceful resolution of the boundary disputes with India at Limpiyadhura, Lipulekh and Kalapani which are located in Nepalese territory.”
The fact that the areas of dispute with India are mentioned in the manifesto in contrast to the glossing over of the disputed areas between Nepal and China in the northern districts is a signal that can be ignored only at India’s own peril.
That the India-China tussle to build influence in Nepal will continue is evident from the fact that both the Asian giants were among the first major powers to congratulate the new government within 24 hours after the government formation ceremony.
Shrouded in secrecy, the Bhutan-China talks on the border issue ended in Kunming, Yunnan, on January 13, 2023.
A joint press release said a “positive consensus” had been reached on implementing the 'Three-Step Roadmap' which provides a framework to resolve all border issues between the two countries.
A concerned India foreign secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra then landed in Bhutan for an official visit from January 18-20. Besides co-chairing the fourth India-Bhutan Development Cooperation Talks, the visit would try to make a sense of the latest Bhutan-China talks and its implications on India, if any.
It is believed that China is eyeing control of the Jampheri Ridge, a strategically-important geographical feature just north of India’s Chicken’s Neck or the Siliguri Corridor. Currently manned by a permanent force of the Royal Bhutanese Army, the ridge offers a commanding view of the 22-km wide Chicken’s Neck through which all rail and road links pass through for connecting the Indian mainland with the Northeast region.
The Bhutan-China boundary talks began in 1984, and till now 24 rounds of boundary talks and 10 rounds of meeting at the expert group level have taken place.
Forced out from Bangladesh since November, hundreds of Christian Kuki-Chin tribals, who bear close ethnic and cultural affinity with the Mizos, have entered Mizoram, complicating New Delhi’s position with Dhaka.
Reported to be driven away by the Bangladesh Army and security agencies for being supportive of the Kuki-China National Army (KNA), an insurgent outfit fighting to establish a separate homeland and better treatment of Kuki-Chins in Bangladesh, the situation represents a diplomatic tightrope walk for India as New Delhi has to walk a thin line between not being very critical of the Dhaka crackdown and keeping its Mizo citizens happy.
Keeping Dhaka in good humour becomes all the more important because of China’s growing friendly relationship with Bangladesh.
Significantly, the first visit of newly-appointed Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang was not to any African country as is the current practice, but to Bangladesh.
Before his scheduled visit to Africa beginning with Ethiopia, Qin stopped over at Dhaka’s Shahjalal International Airport, where he met Bangladeshi foreign minister Abul Kalam Abdul Momen on January 10, 2023.
The problem with Myanmar is similar to the one with Bangladesh. Only that Chins have been on an exodus to Mizoram fearing oppression by the military junta and India being unable to make a strong case for it with Naypyidaw.
This is against the backdrop of the fact that China has consolidated its huge presence in Myanmar and the military junta at Naypyidaw appearing more and more to be a proxy of Beijing.
The situation saw another development when the Indian external affairs ministry finally admitted on Thursday that a Myanmarese air force plane had indeed dropped a bomb in Indian territory near the Tiau river on the international border a few days ago while conducting counter-insurgency operations against Chin rebels.
On Thursday, MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said, “We have taken up this matter with Myanmar.”
The dilemma, however, is how far will the Indian government go to demand action on part of Naypyidaw as Indian territorial sovereignty has been violated. Lest Myanmar turn inimical to Indian interests and give into China’s welcoming embrace.