The Kalapani dispute is a textbook case of an aspiring great power militarily occupying a strategic territory of its smaller neighbor to render diplomatic recognition insignificant
Dark water emerges from the springs of this remote valley in the mountains, a land of exquisite beauty, a land under military occupation for decades.
Kalapani lies at the western tri-border point where Nepal, India and China meet. The Mahakali River originates from Kalapani, and according to the 1816 Sugauli treaty (Article 5) signed between the East India Company and Nepal, the river demarcates India and Nepal. However, India has now officially claimed Kalapani as its own, and Nepal risks forever losing a precious piece of its land.
The natural beauty of Kalapani is eclipsed only by its geopolitical significance. Following a humiliating defeat in the Sino-Indian war of 1962, Indian troops entered Kalapani and built military outposts. Ever since, India has gradually intensified its occupation, with each new step creating a public outrage in Nepal. During the most recent protests, Nepalis fulminated against India legitimizing its claims on a revised national map. The new map of India, published following the occupation of Jammu and Kashmir, includes Kalapani as a part of the Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand state.
As usual, the streets of Kathmandu are angry and the leadership in Singha Durbar is hesitant. Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in a 1997 visit, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his 2014 visit, both agreed to find a solution to the dispute over Kalapani through bilateral diplomatic talks. Still, the occupation remains. The Indian government maintains its new map is accurate, while Nepal’s best response is to reiterate its commitment toward resolution “with mutual agreement.” Nevertheless, it is apparent that the situation requires a hard power solution, but one that would require a skilful strategic balancing act.
Small countries situated among the great powers of the world must forever defend their sovereignty in a precarious balance. Indeed, in the words of Prithvi Narayan Shah, Nepal is “a yam between two boulders.” Moreover, at the start of the third decade of the 21st century, such small countries are increasingly threatened by great powers making claims on coveted territories: Russia has annexed Crimea, Turkey has occupied northern Syria, India has marched troops into Kashmir, China still vows reunification with Taiwan, and the USA has sprung an offer to purchase Greenland. As the great powers openly scramble to occupy these and other disputed territories, they show little regard for the rules-based order that has guided international relations since the end of the World War II. For small countries that are now the victims of great power aggression, seeking justice in international forums may constitute a diplomatic dead end.
In this context, neither the occupation of Kashmir nor the redrawing of the map around Kalapani should be viewed as conflicts between India and its sovereign neighbors. In Kashmir, India sent troops first and dealt with legislative hurdles later. In Kalapani, India occupied the territory for six decades before officially including it in its national map. Mirroring Russia’s strategy in Crimea, diplomatic deliberations followed rather than preceded military action. Viewed this way, the Kalapani dispute is a textbook case of an aspiring great power militarily occupying a strategic territory of its smaller neighbor to render diplomatic recognition insignificant.
Of course, the strategic value of occupying Kalapani for India is in large part to gain an advantage against a superior rival: China. And it is with China that Nepal must seek a balancing force against India.
Since the 1962 war, China has far surpassed India in economic and military might. Consequently, India needs every possible military and strategic advantage against China in the event of a possible conflict, making the borderlands of Nepal highly vulnerable to the geopolitical machinations of this pair of great powers. Aside from being a site of a historical trade route, Kalapani is the origin of the Mahakali River and is relatively accessible compared to the treacherous mountains surrounding it, providing an excellent location for an Indian military base to check a Chinese advance.
Appeal to China
So far, China has not weighed in on either side of the dispute. However, the Nepal-China March 20, 1960 treaty supports Nepal’s claim on Kalapani. Moreover, after the October 2019 visit of President Xi Jinping to Kathmandu, Nepal’s relations with China have been upgraded to a “strategic partnership of cooperation.” Nepal should solicit material support from China and request that Beijing advance Nepal’s case against India by emphasizing the strategic importance of Kalapani. Engaging Beijing in the Kalapani conflict will not only provide valuable leverage against India, it will strengthen the new partnership and test the sincerity of Beijing’s commitment. Moreover, the threat of such a move alone might be sufficient to bring India into serious bilateral dialogue.
The dispute over Kalapani highlights the perils of heavy dependence upon a powerful ally, to the point where the political leadership of Nepal has neither the will nor the courage to stand up against infringements on its national sovereignty by India. Thus, Nepal must look to China to balance against India’s encroachments. However, the traditional recourse of playing the China card cannot alone guarantee Nepal’s sovereignty, as China is poised to become the next superpower and already has designs on its own coveted territories, most notably Taiwan. Here, Nepal should emulate the Taiwanese strategy through a delicate move of balancing China with the United States. China has not tried to occupy Taiwan for the simple reason that the USA has continued to supply military aid to the ROC. As there is a President in the White House who is willing to be flattered into procuring vast amounts of arms, Nepal can exploit America’s suspicion of China by hedging its bets with a third powerful actor.
In the Melian dialogue, the ancient Greek historian Thucydides recounts how the Melians’ commitment to the principle of neutrality and a posture of right over might resulted in the destruction of the city by Athens. For Nepal, much like Melos, appeals to neutrality will no longer suffice. To survive in a land of the giants, Nepal must have its own balancing strategy. Clearly, such a strategy involves immeasurable dangers. But if Nepal is willing and able to play the strategic game of global balancing, it should invite China to draw its forces closer to India’s position at Kalapani. It is quite apparent that if invited, China would move in favor of Nepal. Meanwhile, the leadership in Kathmandu should make overtures to Washington, to redress the balance by ensuring that Chinese assistance does not pose an existential threat to Nepali sovereignty. Inevitably, a more crowded space would decrease the freedom of action of the great powers. Once Nepal can draw more great powers in, their interests will be forced to operate in balance against each other.
As great powers make mockery of international laws and the rules-based international order, the small states that rely on precedent and appeals to justice are destined to perish. Conversely, the small states that can balance the great powers off each other will have a better chance to survive intact. It is, after all, the age of global balancing.
Dr Robert A Portada III is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania, USA. Uttam Paudel is an undergraduate Political Science major at Kutztown University. They are currently researching Chinese aid and investment strategies in Central America