by Andrew Korybko

The relatively obscure and media neglected topic of Nepal’s growing constitutional crisis has the very real possibility of transforming into a larger proxy confrontation between China and India. Neither state stands to gain by falling into this strategic trap, but as their mutual neighbor’s destabilization only intensifies, and each Asian giant finds themselves increasingly supporting opposing sides, it might just take another small spark of violence to enflame the country once more in civil war, and with it, bring the continent’s two largest countries into a full-blown proxy conflict. This briefing looks at the recent history behind the latest political crisis in Nepal, and then concisely examines the dichotomies between China and India’s approaches to it. Finally, the last part sums up the most probable regional scenario of what would happen if civil war returns to the South Asian state.

The “Blockade”

Nepal’s government overwhelmingly passed a new constitution last month which plans to devolve the unitary state into a federal one formed from seven new provinces . The decision was met with immediate consternation by some of the country’s minority ethnic groups, most notably the Madhesi and Tharu that live in the fertile Terai region that stretches along the Indian border. India, too, hasn’t been too keen about supporting its neighbor’s moves, giving indications that it’s worried that friendly ethnic groups like the Madhesi might be underrepresented in the new structure. India’s lack of enthusiasm about Nepal’s federalization is occurring at the same time as the growing Madhesi uprising in the south (now joined by the Muslim community) that has stopped border trade between the two countries, leading Kathmandu to accuse New Delhi of implementing a de-facto blockade. India, for its part, denies the accusations, and says that its trucks can’t get through the border because of the anti-federalization unrest there. The crisis is becoming especially acute because fuel supplies are blocked at the border, and Nepal is having difficulty compensating with imports from China because of most of the border checkpoints are still unpassable after the earthquake earlier this year. One of them just reopened , however, and it’s already having a positive effect on ameliorating the crisis.

Divergent Paths

What had begun initially as a domestic political issue has warped into one with international dimensions, as it’s observable that China and India are now competing for Nepal’s loyalty. China has the advantage of taking a hands-off approach to its partner’s internal affairs, and combined with its fuel exports to the beleaguered country, this has ingratiated it with the national government. At the same time, however, India exerts a different level of influence that’s concentrated along cultural, economic, and ethnic lines. It’s the Himalayan state’s largest trading partner , and it has strong connections to the country’s majority Hindu population and plethora of minority border-region groups. There’s thus a certain dichotomy when it comes to China and India’s present methods of influence over Nepal – Beijing’s are top-down, while New Delhi’s are bottom-up.

From Civil War To Proxy War?

At this juncture, it remains to be seen whether the government will budge on amending the internal borders of its proposed federal entities. Kathmandu is afraid that giving in to the Madhesis’ demands will grant them too much clout within the new administrative construction, essentially carving out a de-facto state for the pro-Indian ethnicity within Nepal which other minorities might be eager to copy. On the other hand, failure to work with the Madhesis in calming its agitated protests might lead to the unintentional outbreak of an ethnic-based civil war, which would then have the potential to unravel the country in ways that its ideological precursor never could, and consequently provoke a humanitarian crisis that could predictably spill over into India. In such an event, India’s subtle support of the Madhesis and others would become overt and stated, and it would find itself forced to deal with this (somewhat expected) crisis along its northern borderlands. Forecasting ahead, India’s support would be for anti-government ethnic minorities, while China would assist the government. If it gets to the point of both states sending weapons to their preferred side, then the constitutional crisis will formally become the next Asian Cold War (with US-Chinese pan-regional tensions and their subset of Chinese-Japanese insular and ASEAN rivalry being the first one), and the disastrous consequences that this would have for BRICS and SCO unity could drive India even closer into the hands of the US and offset the multipolar zeitgeist that’s sweeping the supercontinent.

The Essential Saker: from the trenches of the emerging multipolar world