The diplomatic crisis between India and Nepal and the ongoing unofficial fuel blockade of Nepal is generating some interest in Bhutan, and rightly so.
Bhutan, led by a practical and able Monarchy, has historically been very good at drawing practical lessons from the diplomatic mistakes of its neighbors and taking necessary steps to avoid them.
A lot of the current prosperity, peace and stability in Bhutan come from this unique quality, exemplified in His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo and now continued in His Majesty the King.
Therefore, it is incumbent on ordinary Bhutanese citizens to better understand the diplomatic situation in our region.
As unfortunate and avoidable as it is, the Nepal-India or India-Nepal clash gives us many important and even new lessons to learn.
An oily China card
There has been some considerable excitement over China agreeing to supply 1,000 metric tons of oil as grant followed by an agreement signed to sell oil to Nepal.
The announcement has sent both the Kathmandu press and, even more so, the New Delhi press into a tizzy. However, the ground reality is quite different.
The New Delhi press is prone to exaggerating the impact of neighboring diplomatic issues as we found out ourselves, a few years ago. Though the 1,000 metric tonnes oil comes to only 1.2 mn liters and is worth around Nu 60 mn, one prominent Indian paper has inaccurately exclaimed that China has agreed to give USD 1.3 bn or INR 84 bn of oil as grant to Nepal. This wrong figure is reflective of the panic and lack of understanding in New Delhi.
The Kathmandu press, on its part, has played up the issue as most Nepalese politicians, under pressure to lift the blockade, are keen to show they are doing something at least even if it is a token action.
The obvious solution for the new government was to negotiate with its own Madhesi citizens and hammer out an understanding on the Constitution. However, the inability to compromise and a vitiated atmosphere created by India’s blockade has hampered any domestic compromise.
Unfortunately for Nepal, China’s generosity comes down to a very symbolic 100 trucks of oil, yet to be fully delivered. All these trucks will have to go through the ‘China-Nepal Friendship Highway’, rated as the second most dangerous in the world by a transport website (7.5 out of every 100 people on this high altitude road don’t make it).
Even visiting Chinese geological experts in Nepal concluded that the highway is too narrow and will not able to resist heavily loaded vehicles. Under the bold headlines of an agreement to sell oil, Kathmandu politicians and the local press, lower down in the articles, reluctantly pointed to the practical difficulties of transporting this oil.
This is partly the reason why, while China has agreed to sell oil to Nepal on paper, both countries are yet to work out the cost, transport and logistics.
Now contrast this with the fact that Nepal needs 350 oil tankers or more of fuel a day to meet its total oil needs. This is what it imported in normal times from India through the much more easily accessible plains. Nepal imports around USD 1 bn worth of fuel from India per year coming to around 1.5 million metric tons or 15 lakh metric tons. Currently India is letting in around 30 to 35 tankers a day for life to egg on in Nepal but is blocking the rest.
If China is serious about making Nepal energy independent of India then it should commit 1.5 mn metric tons as an alternative source of affordable and subsidized fuel, but it will not do so as it is a logistical and financial nightmare. China would have to guarantee around 150,000 truckloads of oil and gas in a year through the road that is struggling to accommodate 100 trucks over a period of few weeks.
There are other highways but they are essentially dirt tracks right now and shut down by the damage from the quakes for the foreseeable future.
Moreover, even Nepalese intellectuals in Kathmandu have pointed out that the limited cooperation from China shows that it still regards Nepal as an Indian ‘sphere of influence.’
In a sign of how much local price and transport issues plays a part, currently there are around 89,000 gas cylinders worth of gas imported from India within Nepal’s territory, but Nepalese truckers are refusing to transport it to Kathmandu due to mainly transport price differences with the Nepal Oil Corporation. The same reluctant truckers are now expected to risk their lives and limbs on the dangerous roads in the mountains.
There has been some talk in the media about a Chinese railway line that will dig a long tunnel under Mount Everest and reach Nepal by 2020. However, recently, Wang Mengshu, the Chief Engineer and boss of the China Railway Tunnel Group company, which built the railway line in Tibet has said that it is a ‘pipe-dream’ given the huge costs and engineering challenges and is unlikely to be built in the coming years.
Even if the Nepal, through some unlikely miracle, gets its oil from China, there are still questions of if it is capable in getting other imports from China. Currently, the bulk of Nepal’s food import, from grains to vegetables, comes from India along with almost all other necessities. Nepal in 2012-13 fiscal year imported around INR 100 bn worth of grains, vegetables and other food items which comes mainly from India or even in the case of third countries, through India.
Given this reality, Nepal’s woes are far from over and have every potential to get worse.
India is not a fairy godmother
All of the above is symptomatic of a lack of understanding between India and Nepal. It was only a year ago that the Nepalese were falling over themselves during Modi’s visit and some fawning news clips saw Nepalese citizens comparing him to a Hindu god. Modi, in that visit and another later, asked Nepal to have a consultative Constitution, but, in all the bonhomie, the message seems to have been lost in the confusion of Kathmandu.
What has escaped the understanding of Nepal’s policy makers and even people is that India is not a perfect neighbor. India is a very big neighbor looking after its own interests which in a few areas coincides with the interests of its neighbors.
Despite all the bonhomie and sentimental statements, Bhutan knows what India is and what to get from it for its own interests, in good time, without pushing it too far. Diplomacy is a very serious business, and especially so for small countries which cannot afford to go on bipolar highs and lows and live in the fantasy land of foreign policy idealism over hardnosed realism.
As big and powerful as India is, it has even bigger insecurities on its regional and border security. This insecurity is uniform among Indian politicians, bureaucrats, media and more so in its security arms.
To put it simply, Bhutan has gained from that insecurity while Nepal has lost out.
China is more complex
Given that India is more familiar to both Nepal and Bhutan, and it is also a democracy with an active media, we have a pretty good idea of what it is doing or even about to do.
It is not so simple in the case of China. A lot of the Chinese foreign policy forays are a combination of its growing wealth and power, and rising Chinese nationalism which has resulted in it wanting to occupy its old and historic space on the world stage.
The very heart of Chinese nationalism is imperial Han nationalism. China’s huge claims in the South China Sea bringing it in conflict with many Asia-Pacific countries are based on claims from its imperial past.
If we turn the focus this side, there are still many Chinese writers and nationalists who, even today, claim that at some point in the historical past, the Himalayan region including Nepal, Bhutan, Arunachal Pradesh, Ladakh and Sikkim came under its area of influence. This thinking was personified in Chairman Mao’s public statements in the 1950s that Tibet is the palm and the five fingers are Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh.
No right thinking and modern Chinese leader will say so in public, but an undercurrent is there, visible in the occasional articles in state media outlets and even blogs claiming the historically vassal status of its neighbors.
The oil and any supplies to Nepal from China will not come for free. Much as the Indian government seeks to influence and even control the Nepal government, the same can be expected from a China with big and unknown ambitions.
Bhutan has not played the China card game like Nepal but Bhutan has also wisely stayed away from antagonizing China on what is considers as its ‘sensitive’ issues from Tibet to Taiwan. Bhutan should continue to stick to this practical policy as we cannot afford to antagonize the red dragon.
Differing paths of Nepal and Bhutan
In 1958, when developments in the north were getting more uncertain, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru came to Bhutan and sealed a strong and mutually beneficial friendship with Bhutan, represented by His Majesty the Third King.
In 1960, India imposed its first blockade on Nepal after differences and tussles between the two governments, even when pacifist Nehru was the Indian Prime Minister.
In 1962, Bhutan with India’s assistance started its first five-year plan fully funded by India, and so started opening up to the world and strengthening its sovereign position.
In 1969, Nepal went through another blockade after it asked an Indians security garrison to leave Nepal.
In addition to its prospering economic situation, Bhutan, in 1971 – with both sponsorship and material support from India, joined the United Nations.
In 1989-90, Nepal endured a third 13- month major blockade that brought relations to its worst point between the two countries. Nepal due to excessive insecurities and politicization also lost its planned hydropower projects.
Bhutan after a period of planned development under the able leadership of the Monarchy delivered stunning results through the rapid socio-economic development of its people. Bhutan also started taking up hydropower projects in a big way, many of which were originally planned in Nepal.
Through a combination of not being able to manage its foreign and domestic issues, Nepal underwent a lot of internal unrest including a Maoist civil war. There was plenty of politics and nationalism to go around but very little stability and development. There was also plenty of foreign involvement as India put its bet on the Madhesis and China on the Nepal’s Communist and Maoist party leaders.
In Bhutan, the Monarchy brought about socio-economic development, dealt with security issues, established important institutions, and then gave the golden gift of democracy on an unsurprisingly unwilling populace. This is also after the Monarchy changed the 1949 Treaty and signed a new one in 2007- that does not require Bhutan to seek foreign policy advice from India in its foreign affairs or permission to buy major arms.
Nepal’s foreign policy moves with India have often been characterized by big, brash and ill timed moves, and almost every time, it has suffered for it, and yet refused to learn from it. As a result, it has affected the future of an entire country and its people.
Nepal started from what would be considered a strong position and had a lot of promise and potential around five decades ago, but it has turned itself into an international cautionary tale.
Bhutan, by contrast, started from a very vulnerable position in the 1950s and has bided its time with patience and discipline under a strong leadership to stabilize and strengthen itself.
From a time when Bhutan had to rely on senior Indian bureaucrats manning its departments as part of India’s technical assistance and also fill up Indian forms to fly outside, Bhutan has come a very long and successful way. Nobody is saying things are perfect, but we are making good and steady progress.