Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 184, 5 November 2020

Nepal: Fact-finding team allege Chinese shift of border posts; Beijing and Kathmandu deny the charge
Mahesh Bhatta

In the news
On 3 November, the Kathmandu Post reported that the Nepali Congress lawmaker of Karnali Province Jeevan Bahadur Shahi has expressed dissatisfaction at the Government of Nepal for the lack of a strong investigation against alleged Chinese encroachment in the Humla district. A fresh border dispute between Nepal and China has been brewing near the Nepal-Tibet border. The dispute emerged after the Chinese administration has unilaterally started constructing structures on the encroached land inside the Nepalese territory. The opposition party, the Nepali Congress, has accused China of encroaching and the Government of Nepal set up a 19-member fact-finding team. This team visited the border region of the Limi area on 5 October and confirmed Chinese encroachment with structures such as concrete buildings and rebuilt border pillars constructed without permission from Nepal. The Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu has however denied the Nepalese media reports and stated that the buildings mentioned were verified on the Chinese side of the China-Nepal border. 
Issues at large
First, an administrative tendency to ignore its northern borders. The 1,414 kilometres Nepal-China border has 69 border posts, constructed from the East Sikkim border to West Lipulek. Among these, pillars numbered 37, 38, and 62 are missing and there is a dispute over pillar no 57. After the recently missed border pillar number-11 was found buried under snow, the border dispute has now been laid to rest. The Communist government of Nepal seems so convinced that it is not even trying to understand the raised issue and has denied the existence of any dispute. During the Chinese President’s visit to Nepal in 2019 both the countries reached the ‘Agreement on Border Management System’ and mentions the formation of a ‘Nepal-China Border Joint Commission.’ However, any progress to that regard is yet to be made. Nepali administration has always been more focused on its borders with India than China, therefore, ignoring an emerging dispute. 

Second, Nepal’s economic dependency on China. It is significant to note that China is Nepal’s highest FDI partner and it is also the member of the China-led Belt Road Initiative (BRI). Nepal has received multiple economic and infrastructural benefits under the BRI. Not to mention, these economic assistances often come with strings attached with tremendous political pressures bordering sometimes on threats. Therefore, the government of Nepal seems to be ignorant of such sensitive issues and plainly refused to accept the allegation reported in the media.

Third, poor border administration. The main reason for the border dispute is the lack of border supervision and monitor. As per the Nepal-China border protocol, a joint border inspection has been agreed to be conducted every 10 years, but no other team has been formed since the last inspection in 2006. While the Chinese embassy in Kathmandu has already said that verification can be done in this regard if the Nepali side wants, it is not necessary to go one step further and respond, rather the regular inspection should be carried out immediately and should continue. 

In perspectives
Nepal is relatively comfortable with China, especially in the political sphere. The Sino-Nepal border is often denoted as a ‘controlled border system’ through an agreement of 1960 and the construction of the pillars of demarcation. Until the recent episode, there was no such border dispute at the Nepal-Tibet border and both sides have been exchanging friendly relations. However, the recent development at the border raised Nepalese eyebrows and reminded Mao Zedong’s Five Fingers of Tibet policy yet again. China’s recent border behaviour in its neighbourhoods, including the growing aggression in the Ladakh region, has certainly sent the South Asian small neighbours including Nepal into a tizzy.

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