The notion of strategic depth first appeared on the radar of the Indian establishment in a substantive way in the 1980s and 1990s when Pakistan upped its involvement with its western neighbour Afghanistan ~ providing political, ideological, military, and economic support to the anti- Soviet mujahideen ~ thereby gaining more traction on its eastern front with India.
New Delhi spent the next two decades trying to counter this development by pouring men, materials, and money into Afghanistan in an effort to deepen its engagement and to ensure Islamabad did not get a free pass on its western flank leaving it free to embark on adventures military and otherwise vis-à-vis India.
The strategic architecture in India’s East too has been undergoing a transformation for a while now especially with China’s persistent wooing of Nepal, traditionally closely allied with India, resulting in Indian policy makers having to rethink their policies including but not limited to reaching out to South- East Asia, Japan, Australia, and the Indo-Pacific region.
But the challenges are only growing with Beijing’s latest move to gain depth in its south – China’s foreign aid agency, CIDCA, is making a major foray into Nepal’s northern region by funding 15 pilot development projects in 13 of the 15 districts that share a border with Tibet.
CIDCA was established in 2018 with the objective of strengthening strategic planning and coordination of Chinese aid to developing countries. In March 2019, the Nepal government had permitted CIDCA to provide assistance to create capital in the 15 northern districts of Nepal to meet their developmental needs.
A framework agreement was signed by Prime Minister KP Oli on his state visit to China in June 2018. Ominously, the Chinese commerce ministry will be the implementing agency for the CIDCA funded projects. The official view in Kathmandu is that China is interested in the development of and direct connection with Nepal’s northern region just as India’s interest lies in the development of the country’s southern Terai region.
But experts say one of the motivating factors behind China’s move is its concern about Tibet. While on the surface Chinese investment in the northern region may appear to hold low geo-strategic value, once it plays out fully it will go a long way in warding off the presence of India from the Nepal-China (Tibet) border.
Experts underline the qualitative difference in the latest soft power projection by China compared to earlier initiatives under which the Tibetan Autonomous Region government used to supply food and other essentials to the northern districts.
Now, with the Chinese development agency directly assisting projects in the region, enhancing infrastructure including roads, health facilities, school buildings, and irrigation channels are part of the mix.
Beijing is clearly wary of Indian and Western development agencies’ activities in northern Nepal due to its sensitivity about Tibet. By putting their money where their interests lie, the Chinese could well be setting up Kathmandu not to permit non-Chinese players in the northern districts.
Published : January 10, 2021
By : The Statesman