Hindu devotees perform a ritual to apologize in front of a statue of deity Shwet Bhairav on the last day of the Indra Jatra religious festival in Nepal's capital Kathmandu on Sept. 6. (Photo: AFP)
Amid a raging pandemic and a looming global economic meltdown, the Himalayan nation of Nepal has courted communist China, much to the chagrin of Hindu nationalist India.
A seemingly innocuous pact between Hindu-majority Nepal and China to remeasure Mount Everest's height has seen New Delhi pressing the panic button.
A clause in the agreement calls for Beijing and Kathmandu to collaborate on "surveying, mapping, and geo-information management."
The height of Mount Everest is a matter of national pride in Nepal. Permits to climb the world’s tallest mountain above sea level generate nearly US$4 million each year for the Nepal government coffers, with a thriving tourism industry involving porters, guides and the hospitality sector.
The height of Mount Everest is pegged at 8,848 meters, as measured by the Survey of India in 1954. Over the decades, many nations have come out with their own calculations, but they have not been accepted.
A devastating earthquake in 2015 revived the debate on its height. Geologists and experts claimed that a swathe of the Himalayas, including where Mount Everest is situated, had “shrunk” due to tectonic activities.
Nepal turned down India's offer to collaborate and went ahead with its $2.5 million measurement project in 2017.
When Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Nepal in October 2019, he described a remeasured Mount Everest as an "eternal symbol of the friendship between Nepal and China".
Jinping, the first Chinese leader to visit Nepal since Jiang Zemin in 1996, signed more than 23 agreements and memorandums of understanding and pledged $496 million in financial assistance to the tiny nation.
India and Nepal had strong relations dating back centuries. Hindu-dominated India doled out many sops to its Himalayan neighbor. Nepal ended its tag as the only Hindu kingdom in the world only in 2008 when it became a federal republic.
Due to their geographical, religious and ethnic affinities, India and Nepal share deep cultural, economic, social and political characteristics. India was Nepal's primary trade partner, while more than 65 percent of Nepal's trade deals are routed through Indian ports.
Their ties began to sour after India completed a road on the India-Nepal-China border in April this year, purportedly to make the pilgrimage to Mount Kailash and Manasarovar easier. Both the Hindu holy sites are in Tibet, an autonomous region within China, and Indians need a Chinese visa to make the pilgrimage.
The Nepal government protested the road construction, which became a bone of contention between the countries. Nepal claims India encroached on 400 square kilometers of its land.
China is looking forward to replacing India in Nepal's economic and political domain. China has revived a $300-million rail project between Nepal and China, which will make Beijing the largest trading partner once the rail network becomes operational in 2025.
China has turned the current domestic politics of Nepal to its advantage. Nepal is ruled by the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) under the leadership of Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli, who is keen on cultivating China by ditching India.
Media reports say that China plays a crucial role in bringing together two warring communist factions in the government to keep the first elected government in Nepal intact. The NCP also gets tips from the Chinese Communist Party on running the party and the government.
China has improved its standing among South Asian countries where India was once considered the Big Brother due to its economic might. Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have openly displayed their new-found love for China and its financial largesse.
By allowing 97 percent duty-free access for Bangladeshi goods, China has become Dhaka's largest trading partner and its largest investor at the same time.
Save India, almost all South Asian nations have shown eagerness to benefit from the big-ticket Chinese revival of the Silk Road, the ancient trade route that connected East Asia with southern Europe. Sending a clear message to India, Nepal officially joined the Belt and Road Initiative in 2017.
Among South Asian nations, Nepal was a perfect fit for China’s strategy to contend with India in every possible way due to the Himalayan nation's cultural and religious closeness to India.
Communist China has wooed Nepal with multiple aid projects and economic growth by collaborating with the ruling NCP.
In another unprecedented move, Nepal has accepted a Chinese proposal to make Mandarin a mandatory language in Nepal's schools, with China footing the bill for teachers.
As New Delhi is busy fighting Covid-19, Nepal is drifting away from its sphere of influence. Indeed, India has lost the buffer state between two Asian giants.
China has hijacked India's decades-old paternal role in Nepal through a strategic partnership of cooperation.