Congress-led government picks up an unverified encroachment claim with China

Experts warn the government’s decision to form a High-level Task Force to investigate the unverified claim of border encroachment in Humla could jeopardize Nepal’s relations with China.

NL Today

  • Read Time 5 min.

Kathmandu: Foreign policy experts and observers have warned Nepali Congress-led government against taking moves that could potentially jeopardize our relations with China.

The fresh concerns related to Nepal’s relations with China follow the decision of the cabinet of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba to form a High-Level Task Force, comprising Under-Secretary of Home Ministry, members of Nepal Police, Armed Police, Department of Survey and border expert, to carry out a field study in Namkha area of Humla district to determine whether China has actually encroached on Nepali territories there.

Two of the Nepali Congress leaders—Jeevan Bahadur Sahi, a lawmaker from Karnali Province, and Bimalendra Nidhi, vice-president of Nepali Congress—have persistently accused China of encroaching on Nepali territories in Humla.

Other lawmakers from Humla have denied it. Chhakka Bahadur Lama, member of House of Representatives in the federal parliament from Humla and Bishnu Bahadur Lama, the mayor of Namkha Rural Municipality, dismissed the encroachment claim in October, 2020.

The previous government had also dismissed these allegations.

On June 25, 2020, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs concluded that there is no border issue with China and requested the media “to verify the information from the relevant authorities before commenting on such sensitive matters which may adversely affect the relations between the two friendly neighbors.” Likewise, China also dismissed the encroachment claim as “completely unfounded rumor.”

However, Congress leaders like Nidhi and Shahi have stuck to their claims.  Early last month, Nidhi raised the issue in a high-level meeting of Nepali Congress. And on Wednesday, the government of Sher Bahadur Deuba took the decision to study the border encroachment issue which, many believe, does not even exist.

“This issue was studied over and settled by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs months ago. The foreign ministry concluded that Nepal has no boundary issue with China. I wonder why the government is raising this issue,” said Gopal Khanal, the author of Bhurajniti (“geopolitics”), who was also the foreign affairs advisor to K P Oli when he was the Prime Minister in 2016.

He said that the pressing issue for Nepal at the moment is about providing justice to Jaya Singh Dhami. “The government’s own investigation team has pointed to SSB. Instead of working to give justice to Jaya Singh, the government is picking an issue with China over the matter that does not even exist,” he said. “This act of projecting one neighbor as an enemy while sweeping the real issues under the carpet will not bode well for Nepal.”

Khanal argues that the government of Sher Bahadur Deuba has not shown the indication of maintaining fine balance in Nepal’s foreign policy. “The government seems to be bent on breaking the balance in our relations with two big neighbors,” he said.

Upendra Gautam, scholar and General Secretary of China Study Center, sees it as the government playing the opportunism card. “This seems like a purely opportunistic card played by the government to appease some leaders within the party and some actors of the foreign power center,” he said. “Such opportunistic and reckless moves will completely erode the credibility of our foreign ministry and home ministry.”

Gautam also believes that the government’s move should be seen in the larger context of the BJP leader making a visit to Nepal, a top MCC official arriving in Kathmandu and the government’s apparent reluctance to raise the issue of Jaya Singh Dhami with India. “The government is trumping up these unfounded claims in this context. It seems to have been done deliberately.”

Gautam also defines the move as the manifestation of tendency among government actors to pick issues with one neighbor to show loyalty to another. “But this is mean,” he said. “First of all, Nepal needs to decide whether our territories in Humla have actually been encroached on.  If we say that it has been, what is the basis of this claim? Do we have evidence? And if we do, what is the source of our information?”

According to Gautam, the government should not have taken steps in such a sensitive issue simply by listening to a couple of its leaders, without independently verifying their claim.

“We should not be seen as being unfair to one neighbor against another. This government seems to be doing the same,” said Gautam.

Nepali Congress leader Dhana Raj Gurung agrees that the government should first have verified the encroachment claim. “The government should have found out the truth by talking with the Chinese side as well. We have the history of our founding fathers settling even the thorniest issue with China through diplomatic dialogue in a very amicable manner,” said Gurung recalling how BP Koirala, the first elected Prime Minister of Nepal, settled the dispute related to Mount Everest with top Chinese leaders like Chou En-lai and Mao. “He had evidence. So he could prove our case,” said Gurung.

“Forming a committee unilaterally might not be fruitful.  The two sides need to sit together and discuss the issues, if there are any at all,” he said.

Border expert Buddhi Narayan Shrestha has no evidence of China encroaching on Nepali territories. “Based on whatever evidence I have read about and seen, I cannot say that China has encroached on Nepali territory in Humla,” said Shrestha. “It is evident that Nepali Congress has taken this move out of pressure from a couple of its leaders.”

Shrestha is worried that the government does not seem to care at all about the possible impacts of such an immature move in Nepal’s relations with China. “Nepal’s foreign ministry said a year ago that there is no border issue with China. China had also concluded that there is no border issue with Nepal and that if there are any issues China is ready to sit for talks and settle the matter,” Shrestha said.

Chinese Ambassador to Nepal Yanqi (L) calls on Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba.

Shrestha says this move by the government looks like an attempt of the government to appease China’s rivals.

“This government is reviving the issue that was settled by its predecessor. What message does it want to send to China?”

According to him, the current boundary of Nepal with China was fixed by the 1961 boundary treaty and its protocols, signed by the two countries and renewed multiple times. “Either we have to prove that China has indeed encroached on our land. Otherwise, it will look like we are disowning the treaties which we ourselves signed with China,” he said.

Shrestha says that the composition of the high-level task force is deeply flawed. “There is no representative of the foreign ministry in that task force. This looks purely like a stunt.”

Narapati Luwar, National Assembly member from Karnali Province, described the move of the government as a misplaced priority. “While the case of the death of a Nepali citizen at the hands of the foreign security force is staring us in the face, the government seems to be taunting China by picking the border encroachment issue which is based on unfounded claims,” said Luwar.

“How come the border dispute with China emerged all of a sudden?” Luwar questioned. “Granted that China has encroached on territories in Humla, how come only one or two Nepali Congress leaders come to know about it?  How come we do not know about it?”

According to Luwar, it would be a big embarrassment for the country if the government cannot prove its case. “You cannot accuse a friendly country of encroachment simply because a couple of leaders of a certain party accuse it of encroachment. The government is making a big mistake in this case,” he said.