Amidst its Tragedy, Nepal’s Strategic Dilemma

The recent devastation in Nepal and the response to it reveals the fault lines of soft power and strategic interests (Credit: Voice of America).

Memo #333

By Tsering Shakya – tsering.shakya [at] ubc.ca

Tsering ShakyaAlthough previous studies have argued that international/donor agenda drives disaster risk reduction (DRR) in Nepal and strengthens the role of NGOs vis-à-vis the government, there are clearly differences in international influences by country, a fact made notable in the cases of China and India.

Nepal’s fear of getting things wrong in its relationship with its powerful neighbor to the North is such that even in this time of crisis, it cannot afford to ignore what China terms its “core interests”; hence Nepal’s refusal of official aid from Taiwan, which has extensive resources and experience in post-disaster operations. Nepal also warned the Indian army rescue team not to fly near China’s airspace—although the area most affected by the earthquake and most in need of emergency relief is precisely this border area.

Since the 1960s, both China and India have been Nepal’s main sources of official development assistance. But China has benefited from a far more positive image in the country than has India, particularly among the Nepali elite, not just due to its aid, but because it has also replaced India as the source of sought-after goods from refrigerators to cellphones. For example, among social media users, China’s Wechat system is the most popular means of communication among Nepalis.

The caveat is that the Nepal-China relationship remains almost entirely confined to the government and elite. There is hardly any people-to-people contact between Nepalese and Chinese. In contrast, India and Nepal share an open border and Hindu culture, while millions of Nepalis work or study in India. Some ethnic groups in fact consider both India and Nepal to be home. By contrast, China and Nepal remain mutually distant and alien.

To wit, the earthquake in Nepal did not arouse a wave of public sympathy in China, unlike the mass support and concern conveyed in India, where there have been public vigils in multiple Indian cities, and a Sikh Gurdwara in Delhi is said to be dispatching cooked meals every day through the Indian air force. The earthquake was hardly discussed in China’s vibrant social media, and there was no rush among the public to collect donations for stricken Nepal.

Thus, while China’s (and India’s) relief operations have been laudable and timely—within six hours of the earthquake the Chinese government had dispatched an emergency task force to Kathmandu and the border regions—it is China’s relative distance and remoteness that has helped construct its positive image among Nepali elites and increased its influence as reflected during this time of crisis.

* A longer and modified version of this essay first appeared at Chinafile

Tsering Shakya is CRC Chair in Religion and Contemporary Society of Asia, Institute of Asian Research, The University of British Columbia.

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The recent devastation in Nepal and the response to it reveals the fault lines of soft power and strategic interests (Credit: Voice of America).
The recent devastation in Nepal and the response to it reveals the fault lines of soft power and strategic interests (Credit: Voice of America).

 

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