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China Flexes Muscles in India’s Backyard


Nepal, a country sandwiched high in the Himalayas between China and India, has historically tilted toward India in regional politics. Ethnic and cultural similarities pull the two countries together, and visitors from one country can cross freely into the next without a passport. For a long time, India has also provided Nepal, one of the poorest countries in the world, with easy credit, food aid, and other support.

Over time, China’s influence in Nepal has been growing, especially in the past few years. Many Nepalese have come to resent their country’s dependence on India, and the government in Katmandu has reached out to China to counterbalance India’s long-standing influence. China has stepped up aid and investment in Nepal, including for infrastructure projects and the preservation of Buddhist sites.

One reason for this, as the New York Times reports, is Tibet, the restive region in China where over the past few years hundreds of Buddhist monks have set themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule. During a visit to Nepal in 2012, China’s then-Prime Minister Wen Jiabao promised $1.18 billion in aid over the next three years. China has enlisted Nepal’s help in cracking down on the political activism of the approximately 20,000 Tibetan exiles in Nepal, as well as stopping more refugees from escaping Tibet into Nepal and India. In past years, about 5,000 Tibetans crossed into Nepal annually; that number has now dwindled to 800 or so, mostly because Chinese-trained Nepalese border guards enforce much tighter security at the border. Because of increased Chinese influence, the Nepalese government doesn’t tolerate politically sensitive events or celebrations by the Tibetan exile community on occasions such the Dalai Lama’s birthday.

Nepal is not the only country where China is competing with India for political influence. Delhi is also getting shoved aside in Sri Lanka, the island nation off India’s southern coast. The relationship between India and Sri Lanka is complicated, but historically they have been close. In recent years, however, China has capitalized on a growing rift between Colombo and Delhi, with Beijing furnishing Sri Lanka with military equipment and funding a number of grand infrastructure projects, including a deepwater port, hotels, airports, railroads, and more.

In the Asian Game of Thrones, friends can make all the difference. China has few true international allies and has even seen many of its rivals band together to counter its aggressive economic and territorial behavior. Nepal might be a peripheral player, but it is a player nonetheless, and Beijing needs all the friends it can get—especially one that borders both Tibet and one of China’s greatest regional rivals.

[Bodhnath, Nepal image and China flag image courtesy of Shutterstock]

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