Disaster Diplomacy
Regional Power and the Nepal Earthquake

The death toll in Nepal continues to soar, past 3,600 souls as of this writing. The 7.8 magnitude earthquake leveled buildings across a huge area of the Himalayan nation and set off avalanches in its surroundings, including Everest. It also killed a smaller number of people in neighboring China and India. The scale of the humanitarian disaster is likely to grow as time goes by, and time is short for the many people who are no doubt trapped under rubble. International efforts to help are already underway, and The New York Times has a rundown of places you can donate here.

The humanitarian aspect of the story is understandably grabbing the headlines. But in the wake of this catastrophe, another drama will be playing out between the two countries that Nepal is nestled between: China and India. Both Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have already made public statements on social media offering condolences, and each committed his country to helping in the relief effort. Their responses have strategic as well as moral importance.

The stakes are high. Beijing and New Delhi are increasingly at odds over the future of Asia, and the strategic implications of the relief effort are substantial in their fight for influence in Nepal. The fall of the ancient monarchy in 2008 ushered in a new phase in Nepalese history, and it also created an opportunity for larger neighbors to vie for influence in the changing country. China and India are locked in a fight over their disputed border, adjacent to Nepal’s northern border with China. Perhaps China’s biggest interest is that it wants Nepal to stop playing host to fleeing Tibetans. The Wall Street Journal has more details:

India has long seen Nepal as part of its sphere of influence. China has been making inroads for decades, and the rivalry with India has gathered momentum with the increasing pace of Chinese investment in recent years.

This pattern has emerged across South Asia, from the island-nations of Sri Lanka, Maldives and Mauritius to Bangladesh and Pakistan, where an expanding Chinese footprint has spurred Indian officials to reinvigorate India’s often fraught relationships with its neighbors. […]

“Nepal is located between these two super powers and there is a competition within Nepal for influence,” said Michael Hutt, professor of Nepali and Himalayan studies at the University of London.

In Nepal, China is committing billions of dollars for highway projects, power plants and factories, and the Chinese government pledged last year to increase its annual aid fivefold to $125 million, as it seeks to discourage the Himalayan nation from offering refuge to Tibetans fleeing China.

Since coming to power in May last year, Mr. Modi has tried to play catch-up, offering $1 billion in loans to help build infrastructure in Nepal and moving forward on power-trading deals to help India harness Nepal’s abundant hydroelectric-power potential.

But with fewer resources to commit overseas, Mr. Modi is also trying another tack: highlighting the historical closeness and cultural ties between the two Hindu-majority countries.

It remains to be seen whether China’s foreign spending binge or Modi’s emphasis on cultural and religious ties will win over Nepal. Right now, Kathmandu has other priorities, but the relief effort opens up a significant strategic advantage for whichever neighbor can be seen as most committed to helping during this difficult time.

At first glance, China looks better positioned to get supplies, vehicles, and rescue teams into Nepal given it’s large military presence in its southwest. But if Modi’s statements and the 300-strong Indian relief force already in Nepal are anything to go by, India is pushing hard too. As this tragic story continues to develop, watch for signs of geostrategic jockeying in a region that may turn into a real flashpoint, especially if a territorialist Beijing runs up against a wall of opposition in the Pacific.

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