India’s blockade on Nepal: Blockade versus balance of power

Published on Oct 20 2015 // Opinion

Katak Malla

By Katak Malla

The international law has limited application in the current Nepal-India context, concerning blockade – declared or undeclared – whether it is imposed by the government of India (GoI) or its proxy inside Nepal. Under the circumstances, one workable option/strategy for the government of Nepal (GoN) is to use the balance of power. In doing so, the GoN should analyse intention, acknowledge preferences and capacities/contingencies of its own, as well as of the GoI and government of China (GoC). Let us take the three variables into perspective.

Intention: According to the latest reports, the GoC intends to supply fuel, if the GoN made such a request (The Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, Hua Chunying, quoted also in The Himalayan Times, October 17, 2015). The GoI’s intention is also open and clear, pointing to the seven point demands for the changes in Nepal’s constitution (the demands published in the Indian Express, September 24, 2015). What do the two government’s intentions tell us?

The GoI’s demands are perhaps aimed at countering the increasing Chinese influence – perceived or real – in Nepal. And, the demands are not necessarily aimed at the constitutional rights of people in the Tarai region. The demands, instead, maybe for the new vital treaties or secret deals with Nepal, somewhat similar to 1965 treaty, barring Nepal to buy arms from any third country. Note that the GoN bought some antiaircraft guns from China and the then GoI imposed 1989-90 blockades, which ended the non-party political system in Nepal. With the restoration of a multi-party system in 1990, the then GoN had established a new security understanding demanded by the GoI.

Now, for the same reason, the GoI is using internal politics of Nepal, pitting one community against another. Perhaps, it is wrong calculation by the GoI, dividing and antagonising various sections of the Nepalese communities. The calculation, nonetheless, tells us that the GoI has decided to do so at high price. And, it will not ease blockade unless the GoN comes to its knees, or unless getting substantial in return from Nepal. Perhaps, the GOI wants water resource treaty, or secret formal security treaty, somewhat similar to the 1965 secret treaty (revealed in 1990). The GoN could avoid such a deal, if it takes preferences into perspective.

Preferences: Time is an important factor for conducting balance of power and 2015 is neither 1965 nor 1990. The GoI and GoC care their sphere of influence in Nepal. Currently, market preferences are vital for both. Security concern is more vital for the GoI than the GoC. The GoI knows well that the Chinese goods are increasingly replacing the Indian market in Nepal – note that up until 1990 Nepal used to import the Kashmiri apples, now the Chinese apples are being sold in Nepal’s boarder cities with India. However, Nepal will not be a preference for either when and where the GoI and GoC calculate more profitable deal among each others – remember that the two governments have agreed to expand border agreement at Qiangla/Lipu-Lekh Pass, a far western point of Nepal, which the GoN claims part of its territory. Yet, it is noteworthy that the GoC is willing to help Nepal with fuel supply. The GoN must accept the offer and prepare for it, even if the GoI is not happy or even antagonized.

What is the cost-benefit-analysis, in doing so? Contingency is the key for cost-benefit-analysis, including dependence, chance of success, condition as well as uncertainties. The GoN needs to evaluate and analyse information. For example, there is a credible knowledge that “open fighting in Nepal would not be good for China or India, both of which fear a flashpoint between them” (the Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs, Sashi Tharoor). When calculating the uncertainty of the success of the chosen strategy, one must also calculate hardship of the people. The GoN has trust defecate, but if it can earn the trust of the people. What happens if the GoN negotiates a deal with the GoC, importing fuel, at least 50%? The reaction from the GoI, could be perhaps more blockades, not perhaps military intervention, but perhaps slow violence in the Tarai region.

Thus, the best option for the GoN is to make constitutional amendments, as demanded by the people in Tarai, as soon as possible. And, prepare for two negotiations, simultaneously, for importing petroleum and gas from the both neighbors, 50% from China and 50% from India. Nepal’s geo-political location is helpful to use the balance of power. For that the GoN need to do its homework, if wishes not submit one neighbor against the other. The strength of the GoN, realising need for the balance of power strategy, are doubtful and hopefully there is someone in the GON, understanding its advantage.

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