Himalayas, Nepal

There were few democratic countries as close geographically or as inclined politically, as Nepal was to China under KP Sharma Oli. Under the tenure of its ousted former Prime Minister, Kathmandu was eager to offset a perceived overreliance on India by pivoting heavily towards Beijing. In doing so Oli courted capital investment in infrastructure, revenue from Chinese tourism and, amid a catastrophic second wave of COVID-19, Sinovac vaccines. Indeed as Oli sought to retain power during a March 2021 factional split within the ruling Nepal Communist Party (CPN-UML), Beijing’s council was openly sought and operated in plain sight as Ambassador Hou Yanqi intervened directly to broker talks. Despite these seemingly warm ties, rumors persisted of territorial encroachments echoing those witnessed elsewhere in the Himalayas, coming amidst reports of China altering the status quo along the 1,439 km long Sino-Nepalese frontier. 

“Issues” in the Humla District

An October 2021 report, commissioned under the new Congress-led government of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, offers some clarity on possible Chinese encroachment on Nepalese territory. The details, however, remain elusive and are limited to Nepal’s Humla district, located in the northwest province of Karnali along the border with the Tibetan Administrative Region (TAR). 79 stone pillars and 20 sub-pillars demarcate the Sino-Nepalese frontier agreed under the 1963 boundary protocol and are some of the few man-made objects that demarcate the border in an otherwise hostile Himalayan terrain. The report identifies several “issues” in Humla between border pillars 4 and 13.  

In contrast to Nepal’s well documented territorial disputes with India over Kalapani and the Lipulekh pass, China’s conduct on the border is much less understood.

Tellingly, the report was not made public but had excerpts leaked to The Kathmandu Post, which revealed that pillars 5 to 12 have all been the subject of interference. Near pillars 6 and 10, barbed wire fences had been moved onto Nepalese territory. Pillar 7 has seemingly been removed completely and in some cases, Nepali citizens have been prevented by Chinese border guards from grazing their cattle in the areas near pillars 4 and 5. Chinese engineers were said to be in the process of building a canal before Nepalese border police interceded. Alongside these findings, an unconfirmed report alleges that during a separate investigation into a larger Chinese presence at pillar 12, observers led by the current Chief Minister of Karnali Jeevan Bahadur Shahi, were pelted with rocks and even tear gas by Chinese frontier guards. 

The challenges in verifying these claims are immense. In contrast to Nepal’s well documented territorial disputes with India over Kalapani and the Lipulekh pass, China’s conduct on the border is much less understood. The Sino-Nepalese frontier which borders Tibet is both sparsely populated and, owing to its high altitude, difficult to administer. The region is rarely visited by journalists and the indigenous groups and Nepalese who live in the Himalayas can go months and even years without seeing officials from Kathmandu. Economics also plays a role, locals trade closely with Tibetans within the TAR and often refuse to comment on local border tensions fearing reprisals, thus making it difficult to verify any claims. In contrast with recent Chinese encroachments in Bhutan and Ladakh, there are few dedicated satellite photographs of Humla or other sectors available in the public domain. This, combined with deliberate silence from various Nepali governments, as demonstrated by the leak to the Kathmandu Post and statements by Oli’s former foreign minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali, further obscure what might be occurring in the Himalayas.

A Chinese Village in Nepal?

Nothing could highlight the uncertainty around the Sino-Nepalese border more than the confusion around reported Chinese buildings within the Humla District. In June 2020, a leaked internal report by the Ministry of Agriculture alleged that China had encroached on at least 36 hectares in seven Nepali districts, specifically Dolakha; Gorkha; Darchula; Humla; Sindhupalchowk; Sankhuwasabha and Rasuwa. All of which are located along Nepal’s border with the TAR and are reportedly catchment areas for mountain rivers and lakes. The story was picked up by the Times of India which reported that Chinese border guards in Dolakha had moved the international boundary 1,500 meters and redrawn the border in Gorkha and Darchula so that villages previously in Nepali territory were now being administered by officials of the TAR. Oli’s administration was quick to deny any stories that hinted at a boundary crisis with China. However, in August 2020 images emerged showing between eight and eleven Chinese buildings alleged to have been constructed two kilometres into Nepali territory around Limi-Lapcha and Hilsa in Humla. This news garnered widespread Indian media attention, provoked anger within Nepali civil society and sparked large protests outside the Chinese embassy in Kathmandu, led by the then opposition Nepali Congress.

What happened next highlights the complexity and the politics surrounding the Sino-Nepalese border and the wider dynamics at play within the Nepal-China-India trilateral. The Oli government-commissioned Chiranjivi Giri, the Chief District Officer (CDO) of Humla, to submit a report regarding the Chinese buildings. This report was never made public but CDO statements to Nepali media stated that after an investigation the buildings were located on the Chinese side of the border, although the team had been unable to visit the buildings themselves as they were denied entry.

Unsurprisingly, the Global Times and other Chinese media sources have been quick to dismiss all claims of Chinese structures within Nepal and accused the Nepali Congress of a “pro-India” bias.

However, as Santosh Sharma Poudel highlights, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) preempted the CDO’s findings, stating that the buildings were not on Nepali territory before the investigation was even concluded. The MoFA’s intervention raises not just questions regarding what information the ministry had, but also whether the evidence acquired was separate from the CDO’s investigation or as lawmaker Rangamati Shahi alleges, the statement was induced under pressure from the Chinese embassy. Amish Raj Mulmi’s journalism latter revealed that pillar 11, which demarcates the border near the Chinese buildings, was missing and eventually found by the Nepalese army under heavy snow, suggesting a possible case of mistaken identity relating to the position of the border and thus the buildings in Humla. Nepal’s ambassador to China, Mahendra Bahadur Pandey, seemingly of his own accord gave a potential insight into the thinking within KP Sharma Oli’s embattled government at the time. Speaking to Chinese state media, he placed the blame solely on India, accusing the Indian press of seeking to disrupt Sino-Nepalese ties at a time when relations with India were deteriorating over the escalating Kalapani dispute.

Unsurprisingly, the Global Times and other Chinese media sources have been quick to dismiss all claims of Chinese structures within Nepal and accused the Nepali Congress of a “pro-India” bias. As of writing, the question of Chinese buildings in Humla remains contentious and given Beijing’s conduct in Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh a possibility, especially as both Beijing and Kathmandu refuse to offer clarification or stray from the line that the border is settled, despite reports to the contrary. The most recent statements by TAR officials state that the buildings in Humla fall within Tibet’s Burang county. However, a video produced by Nepalese media outlet Khabarhub released in September 2021 purports to show Chinese infrastructure still visible within Humla, including a collection of buildings and interviews from locals alleging interference by Chinese border officials. This footage, combined with the allegations of Jeevan Bahadur Shahi of a large encroachment near pillar 12 in Humla, further adds to the sense that all is not as it seems, despite the dismissals by senior federal officials.

A Tale of Two Borders

The questions relating to Chinese activity in Humla (and other Nepali districts) bring us to the wider relationship between China and Nepal and the levels of Chinese activity within this region of the Himalayas compared to actions undertaken in Bhutan, Arunachal Pradesh, and especially Ladakh. Despite the recent findings by Sher Bahadur Deuba’s new government relating to Humla, the information available relating to the wider Sino-Nepalese frontier remains limited, with recent investigations representing an assessment of a specific part of the border. However, given the available evidence in the public domain, the following conclusions can be drawn.

First, Chinese alterations seem likely to have occurred in Nepal under KP Sharma Oli’s administration, and probably even well before. However, these changes, such as those reported in Humla, have seemingly been conducted in a fashion that does not suggest a large scale, premeditated attempt to alter the status quo.

This stands in notable contrast to the movement of PLA troops into Ladakh and the construction of villages in Bhutan. In the case of Bhutan, the villages constructed such as Pangda, are supported by large amounts of associated infrastructure, especially roads. This is not visible in the case of the buildings in Humla, which appear more isolated. The alterations in Humla, on the available evidence, suggest local tensions between Chinese frontier guards and Nepalese native to the region very much exist, in contrast to Kathmandu’s statements, and have spilt over into small scale alterations utilizing low technology means, such as barbed wire fences. Beyond Humla, there are reports that China has encroached on catchment basins for rivers, but these have proven difficult to verify.

To what extent any of these moves have been ordered by CCP officials in Lhasa, versus local actors using their initiative is simply unknown. What is clear, however, is the lack of overt deployment of infrastructure, territorial claims, and PLA patrols and equipment to Nepal that has been seen elsewhere in the Himalayas. Rather, on the evidence available, Beijing’s wider infrastructure and mass resettlement drive in Tibet may be spilling over into Nepalese districts. The disappearance of border pillars could have been undertaken by the Chinese side and indeed seems likely in some cases; however, the inhospitable nature of the Himalayas offers another partial explanation also. For example, pillar 60 in the Daulkha district was found missing from its original position but was deemed washed away by a river. Others, such as pillar 11 in Humla, were eventually found buried by heavy snowfall.

Secondly, there is no interest in either Beijing or Kathmandu for frontier tensions to disrupt wider relations, as the Kalapani dispute threatened to do with India. The result is that silence is the order of the day on the Nepal-China frontier, with no information from the Nepali federal government readily available. The result is conjecture over leaked reports. In the case of Indian media sources, the search for evidence of an invasion may be more reflective of India’s recent experience in Ladakh. The Sino-Nepalese bilateral provides a very different context when compared to Beijing’s conduct towards Bhutan and India. Xi Jinping has launched a charm offensive towards Kathmandu and is keen to present the CCP as ideological brothers with Nepal’s leftist parties, while also seeking to assuage the Nepali Congress’s concerns. This, combined with promises of investment through the Belt and Road into Nepal’s infrastructure (with USD $2.4 billion in various infrastructure projects in 2019 alone), has seen China take advantage of the at times tempestuous relations with India and present itself principally as a partner on infrastructure. A partner successive Nepalese governments seem willing to indulge to aid development and offset Nepal’s reliance on its southern land border. Beijing’s local diplomats in Kathmandu, as well as more senior CCP officials, have demonstrated a willingness to allay Nepali society’s concerns over closer ties and have worked to prevent anti-China sentiment from consolidating into a cohesive political identity.

There is no interest in either Beijing or Kathmandu for frontier tensions to disrupt wider relations, as the Kalapani dispute threatened to do with India. The result is that silence is the order of the day on the Nepal-China frontier, with no information from the Nepali federal government readily available.

Indeed, Beijing has seen firsthand how India has mishandled ties with Nepal, first in 2015 and then in 2020 with the Kalapani dispute sparking a notable backlash against New Delhi, and has likely learnt lessons. KP Sharma Oli’s language on the border, when pressed, suggests an awareness that an increased Chinese border presence would similarly rile public sentiment at a time when BRI projects and the benefits of closer ties have been slow to materialize. Thus, lacking the incentive for a large-scale border dispute and seeing in Kathmandu an opportunity to expand its trade, influence, and leverage at New Delhi’s expense, China has appeared flexible—at least in public. A key example of this relates to Mount Everest, a highly emotive issue for Nepal, where in May 2020, a tweet from CGTN suggested the mountain belonged to China. Preempting a public backlash, Chinese state media was quick to reverse course, suggesting a degree of deference towards Nepali public opinion that has not been forthcoming elsewhere in Himalayan border disputes, especially when compared to India’s sensibilities towards the Galwan valley. The following December, both sides finally agreed on Everest’s height, putting to rest one of the final formal disputes on the border.

Ultimately, the uncertainties surrounding the Sino-Nepalese border look set to continue. Despite the report on Humla, Sher Bahadur Deuba’s minority government is fragile and looks set to continue the practice of public silence regarding any issue relating to China—in contrast to asserting Nepal’s claims with India over Kalapani where nationalism continues to feature heavily. Without further investigation either using satellite photographs of the quality that revealed Chinese infrastructure in Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh, or a more direct presence on the ground the true nature of the border may never be known. Satellites however are expensive assets to deploy and expeditions to distant districts are both time consuming and dangerous. For now, the answer will remain shrouded in the fog and clouds of the Himalayan mountains, which one suspects is the way many figures in Kathmandu would like it to stay.  


Image 1: Sergey Pesterev via Flickr

Image 2: MARK SCHIEFELBEIN/AFP via Getty Images

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