Despite being South Asian neighbors, India and Nepal have been tangled in recent years in several border disputes. Most recently, earlier this month, Nepal raised objections over the inauguration of an 80-kilometer-long link road by the Indian government, connecting Dharchula (a town in the Indian state of Uttarakhand and a historically important trading center for trans-Himalayan trade routes) with Tibet via the Lipulekh Pass. Though the newly-constructed road is to serve as a shortcut for pilgrims to reach Kailash Manasarovar in Tibet, the primary issue here lies within the Lipulekh Pass, considered a disputed border region and claimed by both India and Nepal as part of their territory.
India and Nepal have traditionally enjoyed close ties with one another, largely forged through cultural and religious exchange. Yet these recent verbal skirmishes between the two countries are indicative of a larger, more significant trend. Nepal may be the largest land buffer standing between India and China, but this has certainly been placed under threat as Kathmandu has seemingly distanced itself from New Delhi and angled closer towards Beijing.
However, recent encroachments by China on South and Southeast Asia have been well-documented, and a series of Chinese-led initiatives in Tibet pose a logical test to Kathmandu’s latest diplomatic and geopolitical orientations. The consolidation of Chinese claims on Mount Everest is one such example. A recent tweet published by the China Global Television Network (CGTN) features a picture of the world’s tallest mountain with the description, ‘An extraordinary sun halo was spotted Friday in the skies over Mount Qomolangma, also known as Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak located in China’s Tibet Autonomous Region’. This caption goes directly against a 1960 border dispute resolution agreement signed by Nepal and China, which formally established ownership of the southern part of Mount Everest to Nepal and the northern part to Tibet which China claims as its own.
Furthermore, earlier last month, Chinese tech conglomerate Huawei teamed up with the country’s biggest mobile network operator, China Mobile, to install 5G networks on the northern side of the mountain as well as part of its summit, through which the international border between Nepal and Tibet runs. Mount Everest now houses the world’s highest 5G base station, and with the seemingly limitless possibilities of 5G technology, China will likely have the ability to survey its surroundings – India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Myanmar – providing it with a distinct militaristic advantage and allowing it to potentially create leverage in a post-Dalai Lama world.
What does this all mean for Tibet? What was once one of the largest buffer zones between India and China has now been reduced to a region fraught with civilian unrest and forcibly bent to Chinese will. Since the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1949 and the Dalai Lama’s ensuing escape to India in 1959, the iron curtains on Tibet have been shut, with the region being notoriously difficult for free and independent visits by journalists, researchers, and foreign government officials.
The aforementioned 5G installation on Everest is representative of a largescale Chinese effort to bring 5G to every corner of the country, Tibet included. Last year, China launched three 5G stations in Lhasa: one at the Huawei building, one at the Lhasa Posts and Telecommunications school, and another at the Tibet Post Group office. While there is no doubt that 5G will allow Tibetans to enjoy faster Internet speeds and more sophisticated communication services, there are numerous underlying concerns that its establishment will more importantly serve a wide range of military and surveillance purposes, permitting China to monitor the Himalayan region and deploy weapons if necessary.
From all the unknowns revolving around the Tibet issue today emerges one reality. The more 5G stations that China installs across Tibet, the greater the control it will establish over Tibetans. Surveillance over the population will only intensify, as Tibetans have their every move closely monitored. Today, China maintains its views of Tibetans as dangerous separatists seeking to launch an independence movement. Yet the Dalai Lama has long renounced any claims to independence, and only seeks for genuine Tibetan autonomy in all three provinces of Tibet – Kham, Amdo, and U-Tsang – through his proposed middle-way approach.
Despite previous guarantees from China to provide true autonomy to Tibet, such promises have been nothing but hollow. It is true that Tibetans have been granted some degree of self-government by way of a quasi-Tibetan local government; however, it is a mere puppet in nature when compared to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which holds the actual keys to influencing Tibetan society. Over the last several decades, the CCP has engaged in a massive transfer of Han Chinese civilians into Tibet as an attempt to accelerate rapid modernization, an act that has unfortunately taken precedence over any cultural considerations that Tibetans have. Mandarin has gradually replaced Tibetan as the primary mode of instruction in several Tibetan schools, as the Chinese government remains hellbent on propagating a prevailing notion of ‘Chineseness’ throughout the region.
Bringing the argument back to India and Nepal, such quarrels do the countries no good, as the continued distancing between them will only divert any attention placed on Chinese activities in Tibet. The two South Asian nations will always be intrinsically linked culturally and religiously, and nothing can change this fact. It would hence be wise for them to use this to their advantage going forward. Mobilizing support from the international community – including the United States – can help highlight issues in Tibet and bring them to the forefront, thereby increasing the possibility of a world in which Tibetans enjoy more cultural, religious, economic, and educational freedom.
(Abhinav Seetharaman is the current Princeton-in-Asia Fellow at the Milken Institute in Singapore. He is a graduate of Columbia University, from where he obtained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees).