WHEN PRITHVI NARAYAN SHAH, the 18th-century king who heralded modern Nepal, defined the country as “a yam between two boulders”, he not only highlighted the nascent kingdom’s fragility, but also hinted at the intimidating presence of its two giant neighbours. Shah conquered several fiefdoms and principalities to unify Nepal, taking advantage of their petty wrangling. But even as he came upon success on the home front, he was still pitted against formidable foes in the British Empire and the Qing Dynasty at its peak. Shah’s metaphor has formed the core of Nepal’s strategic relations with its neighbours.
Flanked by India to the south, east and west and China to the north, the Himalayan nation has historically acted as a buffer state. The majestic mountains form a natural barrier between Nepal and China. But an assertive China, having arrived on the global stage with a bang, is leaving its footprints all over South Asia, nowhere more prominently than in Nepal. In building roads, investing in hydropower and telecoms, and signing multibillion-dollar aid packages, China is often treading on India’s toes in Nepal—and its increasing geopolitical influence in the region is making India anxious. With both countries competing for Nepal’s attention, there is a consensus in Kathmandu that the country must take advantage of the newly-ardent courtship.
Along its journey to becoming a global power, it is only natural for China to expand its reach. Many analysts claim that the next theatre of conflict between the US and China will be the Indian Ocean. In recent years, China has built a series of ports in Bangladesh, Burma, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, part of what some foreign policy wonks have dubbed the “String of Pearls”, and there are fears in India that, in establishing these ports, China is encircling the country. Analysts believe that China sees their ports serving both as trade routes and strategic bases.