China and the World

Crisis diplomacy

China’s rivalry with India spills over to relief efforts in Nepal

Members of Chinese International Search and Rescue Team and their rescue dogs gather before boarding a charted plane to Kathmandu, after a 7.9 magnitude earthquake hit Nepal, at Beijing Capital International Airport

Is this the ‘most welcome’ rescue team in Kathmandu?

Early last month Nepal was in the headlines for an audacious plan to build a railway tunnel under Mount Everest. Chinese engineers were working to connect the country’s two networks at Kathmandu’s request, Chinese state media said.

India, which also shares a border with Nepal, did not officially respond to the plan, but the nation’s leading paper The Times of India referred to it as an “alarm bell”.

Then on April 25th a massive earthquake struck. It has killed over 7,000 in Nepal and injured 14,000.

In more ways than one it was also felt in India and China. Both countries scrambled to respond – keen to show they were the friend that Nepal needed. Within hours both had teams in the country. India let it be known that its military had arrived first. China pointed out that when its aid arrived it was more useful as it included a UN-certified search and rescue team.

And so it continued with each country boasting of how well it was doing, with China Daily carrying an article headlined “Chinese ambassador first to offer aid”. In total China committed Rmb60 million ($9.6 million) in humanitarian aid, five medical teams, 170 search and rescue personnel, plus 500 men from its armed police force to repair the 943 kilometre road that connects Kathmandu to Lhasa in Tibet.

India has also sent in 700 military personnel to help in the search-and-rescue efforts, together with 13 planes and helicopters.

India and Nepal enjoy a very close relationship – there are deep linguistic and religious ties and many Nepalis live and work in India. But Nepal is also sensitive to Indian involvement in its domestic affairs: any suggestion that Delhi views the Himalayan republic as a lesser nation go down very badly.

Indian TV channels which were talking up their government’s relief effort therefore came in for particular criticism from Nepalis – many of whom watch Indian TV.

“When I saw your news… my heart cried and hurt more than the destruction caused by the 7.9 magnitude earthquake. Your media are acting like they are shooting some kind of family TV serial,” Nepali Sunita Shakya wrote on her blog.

The Chinese media, of course, reported the local anger though they also cited multiple denials from Chinese officials there was any competition with India over Nepal. “Chinese aid to Nepal is in the spirit of internationalism,” the China Youth Daily said. “India’s reason are more complex. It hopes to win back hearts and minds.” The biting commentary also went on to suggest that India is flattering itself if it thinks it can compete with China. “We don’t know where their confidence comes from,” it sniped.

Emergency relief aside, China’s investment pledges in Nepal outstripped India’s for the first time last year, amounting to $73 million.

India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has tried to reverse this. His country plans to invest $65 million this year and Modi has also offered a $1 billion credit line to develop Nepal’s hydroelectric sector, which he says can help Nepal by selling electricity to India.

Unedifying though the current bickering is – amid the human tragedy of the earthquake – Nepal may ultimately benefit from both neighbours’ attentions. “Nepal has become smarter and learnt to leverage both the Asian giants to its benefit,” the BBC quoted Harsh V Pant, a professor at London’s Kings College as saying.

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