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Geopolitical Challenges of Kathmandu-Rasuwagadhi Railway

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Geopolitical Challenges of Kathmandu-Rasuwagadhi Railway
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The Trans-Himalayan Multidimensional Connectivity Network is one of the biggest infrastructural connectivity projects, under which, Nepal is envisioned to develop itself into a land-linked state from a landlocked state.

It aims to connect Nepal with the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) of China, ultimately leading to the different sea and land ports in China.

The project offers ways to diversify Nepal’s economic relations and provides an alternative to the transit facility for Nepal other than India reducing the asymmetric dependency.

The 170-KM railway link from Kerung to Kathmandu is one of the ambitious projects under BRI infrastructural connectivity projects.

However, ahead of the construction of these projects stands economic, political, environmental and geo-engineering perspectives.

One of the prominent challenges to this infrastructural link is the geopolitical vulnerabilities. The article in this context aims to shed light on the geopolitical challenges of the Kathmandu-Rasuwagadhi Railway.

It is evident that the possible economic corridor established through this railway project brings huge economic, trade and people-to-people connectivity prospects for Nepal.

India is aware of the prospects of the infrastructure, but India does not only thinks through the economic gains but is also concerned about its strategic implications.

Thus, the focus on the construction and completion of this railway connectivity network will certainly boost Nepal’s aspiration for economic growth and prosperity.

However, this is not to say that railway connectivity is free from certain geopolitical challenges. Different facets can be discussed regarding the geopolitical impediments of this railway project for Nepal.

Geopolitical Challenges to Kathmandu-Rasuwagadhi Railway

The critical geopolitical situation of Nepal because of the geographical location between the two Asian giants; India and China, itself is a huge geopolitical challenge.

India’s reluctance on joining BRI and its vocal opposition to the BRI puts the railway project of connectivity under geopolitical scrutiny.

Also, the extra-regional actors like the United States, Japan and others in South Asia aiming to contain China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region makes the connectivity project very critical through geopolitical lenses.

India’s huge contestation on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), as it passes through the disputed area between India and Pakistan makes India more hesitant towards BRI projects.

Similarly, the ‘Bangladesh-China-Myanmar Economic Corridor’ and the ‘Twenty-first Century Maritime Silk Road’ in the Indian Ocean have posed a concern for the Indian strategic imperatives.

South Asia, as a region has always been thought of by the Indian policymakers as their traditional sphere of influence.

One of the major concerns of India regarding BRI is its losing grip on South Asia as a singly dominated state. The BRI projects in the region have made a new passage for China to enter into South Asia.

The connectivity projects do not only have concerns regarding continental South Asia but also has some implication for maritime South Asia or Indian Ocean Region for India.

Thus, the BRI connectivity projects have created the condition for less cooperation and more struggle and competition between India and China.

Therefore, Nepal- which India considers to be under its sphere of influence- when linked through railway is expected to shift or tilt towards China, decreasing Nepal’s dependence on India.

Not only will India lose its grip on Nepal, but the connectivity is also perceived as a geo-economic threat by India. The open border between Nepal and India will certainly make the flow of Chinese goods and products easy to pass to India affecting the Indian economic market.

Similarly, because of the Tibet issue, the long-term impact of border concerns between the states, and non-traditional security issues such as smuggling and trafficking are among the security concerns pertinent not only to India but to Nepal and China as well.

Therefore, China’s novel initiative to take the South Asian regional connectivity and its surplus economic capital to the South Asian small states have posed severe political, economic and security concerns for India.

Thus, India’s reluctance towards BRI and its stance on any projects of connectivity in its close neighborhood could be understood clearly.

The construction of the Kathmandu-Rasuwagadhi railway is expected to provide huge connectivity prospects for Nepal and other regions; however, the Indian view of this project is going to be completely different from that of Nepal and China. This is going to create uneasy situations in New Delhi for its regional and global ambitions and to maintain prominence in the region.

The security concerns including the Tibetan issue are also one of the apprehensions for India through the connectivity project. China’s Tibet policy under President Xi Jinping indicates the security dimensions and his focus on ‘stability’ and ‘development’ in the TAR with huge connectivity projects which will certainly affect India along the Sino-Indian borders.

The infrastructural link through the Kathmandu-Rasuwagadhi railway through Tibet opens up the border fronts for India amidst increasing contestations between them.

The economic dimension of the trans-Himalayan network is taken as a huge strategic imperative for India. This policy has the challenge of even enhancing the Sino-Indo conflict in Nepal.

The struggle and competition of India and China in Nepal regarding railway connectivity could have serious impacts on the geopolitics of Nepal. The strategic implications of the railway network will be a core concern for India, and this anxiety will affect the geopolitical vulnerability of Nepal.

As Kathmandu-Rasuwagadhi railway connectivity was proposed for the detailed study report for initiation, India also proposed to enhance Kathmandu-Raxual railway infrastructure.

Although these connectivity infrastructures are welcomed by Nepal, however, the construction of Mansarover Link Road by India through the Nepalese territory remains under question.

The alliance on containing China through QUAD has relevance for Nepal from India and the USA specifically. The geopolitical realities and economic drive of Nepal make QUAD very important in terms of dealing with China.

The emphasis of this road infrastructure from Nepalese territory linking to Mansarover in Tibet depicts India’s skepticism towards trans-Himalayan railway connectivity as a whole.

The alarming construction of this connectivity network between Nepal and China is a threat to India’s strategic response and also the religious and tourism sectors.

India is aware of the prospects of the infrastructure, but India does not only thinks through the economic gains but is also concerned about its strategic implications.

Therefore, the road through Nepalese territory is a kind of symbolic protest towards everything windows of opportunities of cooperation not only between Nepal and China but also for the trilateral cooperation and others.

Extra-Regional Actors and Geopolitical Challenges to Kathmandu-Rasuwagadhi Railway

India as a close neighbor to Nepal not only brings the prospect of geopolitical challenges in Sino-Nepal cooperation, but the interest of the extra-regional actors also invites geopolitical impediments to the two nations’ bilateral or development cooperation.

The global geopolitical rivalry situation between China and the USA also poses a geopolitical challenge to the Kathmandu-Rasuwagadhi railway.

The ongoing public debate on Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) -Nepal Compact is under discussion on different fronts of Nepalese discourse regarding its geopolitical implications.

MCC has also been allegedly understood in Nepal as a threat to the BRI projects in Nepal. The sovereignty and territorial integrity has been under discussion regarding the geopolitical impact of the MCC project in Nepal.

The ongoing polarized debate on MCC clearly depicts the competition of the countries in Nepal. Therefore, this huge project of trans-Himalayan Connectivity Network to join Nepal with China certainly faces geopolitical challenges.

The political-economic rivalry outside Nepal has similar effects with the increasing development imperatives, especially with China. India’s participation in the security dialogue-QUAD led by the United States positions Nepal geopolitics in a crucial zone.

Thus, the Kathmandu-Rasuwagadhi railway invites the collective attention of the QUAD members towards Nepal. So, it is important to calculate the geopolitical risk involved with the construction of the Trans-Himalayan Connectivity Network.

The alliance on containing China through QUAD has relevance for Nepal from India and the USA specifically. The geopolitical realities and economic drive of Nepal make QUAD very important in terms of dealing with China.

The growth in the connectivity networks could make Nepal a focal point for QUAD members in containing China.

Thus, the Kathmandu- Rasuwagadhi railway invites the collective attention of the QUAD members towards Nepal. So, it is important to calculate the geopolitical risk involved with the construction of the Trans-Himalayan Connectivity Network.

Moreover, the 2+2 dialogue held between India and the USA defining the defense ties between the two last years has provided Nepal with more geopolitical vulnerabilities while dealing with China.

The cooperation between the two allies reinvigorates the essence of QUAD in South Asia with serious geopolitical and military situations.

The defense cooperation between China and India is a prospect to think for Nepal about the geopolitical circumstances of the connectivity and development projects with China.

Conclusion

With the growing border conflicts between India and China followed by the technological war between them, the tensions have gone beyond the cooperation between the states.

India’s participation in the QUAD, the launch of the SAGAR initiative by the Modi Government and other policies for containing China have diverted the situation of cooperation. India has been very sensitive towards its neighbors and any activities by other states in the neighborhood, especially by China.

So, India has been unwilling towards this modality of cooperation as well. Therefore, the construction of this huge potential-driven railway connectivity is not free from geopolitical impediments.

Nepal’s foreign policy should direct in the way of tactful accommodation of interest of major powers through ‘meticulous diplomacy’ and protect the national interest, sovereignty and territorial integrity which could be invited through the infrastructural geopolitical vulnerabilities.

Therefore, the Kathmandu-Rasuwagadhi Railway poses serious geopolitical challenges in the future because of the changing dynamics of the international and regional security- politic nexus.

The rise of China globally, its entry into India’s traditional sphere of influence, and strategic implications of the BRI connectivity projects, are among the other reasons for the geopolitical impediments to the trans-Himalayan connectivity network.

Although the trilateral cooperation between China, Nepal, and India seems to be very optimistic through the railway connectivity forwarded through BRI (Kathmandu-Rasuwagadhi) and India (via Kathmandu Raxual), however, the trilateral cooperation mechanism proposed previously have been objected to by the stakeholders.

Previously, the ‘Two plus One’ dialogue mechanism was forwarded by China to have a dialogue with the third country of South Asia with the inclusion of India. However, this framework has been rejected by Nepal, and similarly, the reluctance of India in this proposed framework made its path unclear.

These cooperation impediments have created a huge problem and posed geopolitical vulnerabilities. Consequently, this Kathmandu-Rasuwagadhi railway also experiences geopolitical challenges in its construction and completion.

Thus, Nepal’s foreign policy should direct in the way of tactful accommodation of interest of major powers through ‘meticulous diplomacy’ and protect the national interest, sovereignty and territorial integrity which could be invited through the infrastructural geopolitical vulnerabilities.

(Gaurav Bhattarai is Assistant Professor at Department of International Relations and Diplomacy (DIRD), Tribhuvan University, Nepal; and Manish Jung Pulami is Research Scholar at Department of International Relations, South Asian University, New Delhi)

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