China must break its silence on Kali River’s origin to resolve Lipulekh flashpoint

Dr Krishna Pandey
Purbanchal University
11 June 2020

A face-off between Nepal and India began when Nepal released its new political and administrative map on May 20 which is currently under parliamentary consideration. The map included Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura, areas India also claims as its own. Responding to the release of a new map by Nepal, India accused Nepal of acting unilaterally and undermining its sovereignty, probably for the first time in the history of Nepal-India bilateral relation. And, China called it a bilateral issue. However, Nepal’s decision of incorporating its missing territories in its map was merely an epiphenomenon of India inaugurating the Lipulekh-Mansarovar link-road via the disputed land on 08 May 2020 and the 2015 India-China agreement on trans-border trade.

On 15 May 2015, India and China signed an agreement for boosting trans-border trade and mobility through Lipulekh Pass. Nepal immediately questioned the legitimacy of the agreement with notes to both countries but the giants would not hear from their sandwiched neighbour. The 2015 agreement is said to be based on an earlier agreement signed between India and China in July 1954 which also defined Lipulekh Pass as a bilateral point between India and China conspicuously violating the provision of the Sugauli Treaty. However, the Kalapani-Limpiyadhura border dispute between Nepal and India first surfaced in 1962 when India posted security forces during the 1962 Indo-China war and, since then, has been a long-standing stand-off.

The Treaty of Sugauli signed between Nepal and British India on 4 March 1816 is the only basis of present-day Nepal-India boundary line.

Clause five of the Treaty clearly states that Nepal would abandon its claim over all territories westward from Kali (Mahakali in Nepal) River by setting the Kali River as a boundary line. The crux of the dispute rests on the disputed origin of the river as Nepal has been claiming Limpiyadhura as the origin of Kali but India, since 1962, has been claiming Lipukhola, which lies eastward from Limpiyadhura, as the origin of the river. Historical evidence supports Nepal’s claim.

The 1954 and the 2015 India-China agreements demonstrate that China also cannot stay away from the dispute although it prefers to abstain from the dispute claiming it a bilateral issue between Nepal and India. It appears that these two agreements between China and India decline Limpiyadhura as the origin of Kali and rather attempt to establish Lipukhola as Kali which originates from Lipulekh Pass. Thus far, China has remained silent amid Nepal and India’s conflicting claims about the origin of Kali. Once China breaks its silence, the dispute will take an interesting twist.

It is a fact that the Sugauli Treaty reset Nepal’s westward boundary line with China. So, it will be unwise to assume that China is not aware of the treaty and its importance on trilateral relation. China’s position, in this case, obviously makes great sense although neither of the three countries has accepted the dispute as a trilateral case. China cannot claim Lipulekh as a tri-junction unless it accepts Lipulekh Pass as the origin of Kali. To accept this is to disregard the historical evidence whereas not to accept it is to question the legitimacy of the 1954 and the 2015 agreement with India. If China also accepts Limpiyadhura as the source of Kali, obviously the tri-junction shifts further westward from Lipulekh to Limpiyadhura. Then, the Indo-China agreements of 1954 and 2015, with regard to Lipulekh as a bilateral point, will bear no meaning at all. China’s apathy in determining trilateral junction does not help resolve the dispute between Nepal and India but further aggravates the tension. Thus, China needs to play a catalyst role not only for Nepal or for India but also for itself.

The legitimacy of the two Indo-Chinese agreements emerged as soon as Nepal officially released the new map including Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura which brought Lipulekh Pass, through where China and India have agreed to boost trans-border trade and connectivity, under Nepal’s jurisdiction. China’s alleged neutrality on the dispute and non-response to Nepal’s diplomatic note sent to it protesting the 2015 China-India agreement informs its tacit acknowledgement of India’s claim. In addition, this also undermines the provision of the Sugauli Treaty and Nepal’s claim of the territories between Lipulekh Pass and Limpiyadhura. Simply, what evidences China puts forth to define the tri-junction triggers Nepal and India to devise their strategies even if they fail to come to a consensus.

The geophysical location of the disputed territories and the two Indo-Chinese agreements have turned this boundary issue principally into a tri-lateral issue although all three countries consider it a bilateral. If China claims to be a powerful regional actor in South Asia, it must make its position clear on the origin of Kali River and defining tri-junction between the three countries which would put pressure on Nepal and India to come to a solution.

Calling the dispute a bilateral issue between Nepal and India and washing its hands off Lipulekh where the strategic interests of all three countries are intricately associated is likely to weaken China’s credibility in South Asia.

Dr Krishna Pandey is an Associate Professor at the Centre for Population and Development, Purbanchal University (Nepal). He can be reached at [email protected]

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