Pokhara epicentre of Sino-Indian rivalry

The Great Game between China and India is being played out in this scenic tourism capital

Tomato BETWixt TWO BOULDERS: Two Chinese Air Force Y-20 transport aircraft at Pokhara airport in November (left) that brought 50 tonnes of relief for Jajarkot earthquake survivors. Photo: CHEN SONG/X

Nowhere is Nepal’s delicate balancing act between its giant neighbours India and China as evident as it is in this tourism capital. 

The Chinese have cultivated a special relationship with Pokhara ever since they built the 200km Prithvi Highway connecting it to Kathmandu in 1974, right up to the inauguration of Pokhara International Airport last year.

India has not been far behind: it financed the 181km Siddhartha Highway connecting Pokhara to Bhairawa in 1971, and a dam that raised the level of Phewa Lake.

There are strategic reasons for India and China to eye Pokhara. Most Gorkha soldiers in the Indian Army are sourced from these mountains, and there is an Indian military pension centre here. 

For China, it is important to keep an eye on refugee centres here with thousands who fled Tibet after the Chinese annexation.

Both India and China have an interest in who governs Nepal, and have followed (often meddled) with political developments in Kathmandu. A Nepali Congress-Maoist coalition that was seen by many to be India-leaning was suddenly replaced on Monday with a Communist-led coalition more amicable to China. 

However, it is Pokhara that is on the main geostrategic fault line between India and China, where the rivalry is openly played out.

Pokhara’s mayor Dhana Raj Acharya is from the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Socialist and has earned the moniker ‘Chinese mayor’ for pushing direct flights to Pokhara from Chinese cities, and activities like the Dragon Boat Festival on Phewa Lake, the China International Crosscountry Championship, and a full-scale celebration of Chinese New Year last month.

Pokhara epicentre of Sino-Indian rivalry in Nepal
Pokhara Mayor Dhana Raj Acharya with Chinese Ambassador Chen Song. Photo: DHANA RAJ ACHARYA/FACEBOOK

The Indians have been looking at this flurry of Chinese activity with some concern, and have organised their own events. 

The first international flight at Pokhara's new airport was a Sichuan Airlines jet from Chengdu in June flying in the Dragon Boat Festival crew. India has been dragging its feet on allowing direct flights between Pokhara and Indian cities because the airport was built by the Chinese.

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To make its point, the Indian Embassy organised a Yoga Day function on the same day as the inaugural Chinese flight. It was not a coincidence that both the Chinese and Indian ambassadors to Nepal were in Pokhara on the same day.

Pokhara epicentre of Sino-Indian rivalry in Nepal
A Sichuan Airlines Airbus 319 was the first international flight to the new Chinese-built Pokhara airport in June last year. Photo: XINHUA. It landed on the same day that the Indian Embassy organised Yoga Day at the nearby Pokhara Stadium (below).
Pokhara epicentre of Sino-Indian rivalry in Nepal

 On another recent visit to Pokhara, Indian Ambassador Naveen Srivastava made a pointed reference to the fact that Pokhara was connected to the Indian border (by the Indian built road in 1971) before it was linked to Kathmandu (by the Chinese-built road in 1974). He added that although Indian visitors liked to drive to Pokhara, they were facing difficulties because of the poor state of the Prithvi Highway. 

“I don’t know who is repairing that highway,” Ambassador Srivastava continued, referring obliquely to Chinese contractors, “but India has set a record in highway construction. Next time, also remember Indian companies.”

Srivastava made no mention of India’s reluctance to allow flights to Pokhara, adding that most Indian visitors came by road anyway.

Chinese Ambassador Chen Song also appeared concerned about the slow progress on the expansion of the Prithvi Highway, and drove along a part of it during a recent visit, posting drone footage of the upgrading work on social media.

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While in Pokhara, Ambassador Song also publicly criticised the Indian policy of not importing electricity from Nepali hydropower plants built by the Chinese. And to drive that point home, two Chinese Air Force Y-20 transport aircraft landed at Pokhara airport in November with 50 tonnes of relief for Jajarkot earthquake survivors. 

New Delhi insisted that the India-Nepal Bilateral Consultative Group on Security Issues be held in Pokhara in October. 

“The great game between India and China is being played out in Nepal, and Pokhara is where it is most visible,” explains geopolitics expert Indra Adhikari. 

She adds, “India is concerned about an increase in Chinese activity around Pokhara, and competition between Nepal’s neighbours is heating up.” 

India’s main sensitivity appears to be over the fact that Kaski and neighbouring districts of central Nepal are major recruitment centres for the Gorkha regiments of the Indian Army. The Gorkha Pension Camp was opened as far back as 1955 in Pokhara, and in 1987 it established a school for the children of Gorkha soldiers in its military.

Pokhara geopolitics
Indian Ambassador Navin Srivastav with mayor Acharya.

Similarly, China’s touchiness concerns the presence of British Gurkha veterans and their families living in Hong Kong, and Tibetans in four refugee camps in and around Pokhara. 

Pokhara was also the staging post for American and Indian military support for Khampa guerrillas who were fighting the Chinese Army in Tibet till they were disarmed or driven out in 1976. Explains analyst Ananda Raj Mulmi: “Beijing does not want Pokhara to once more become a base for anti-Chinese activities.”

After opening the China-Nepal border at Korala in Mustang, the Chinese are keen to make Pokhara a trading hub in central Nepal. 

“The Chinese had a long term time horizon to link the Prithvi Highway to Korala, and wanted to extend the road from Pokhara to Jomsom but King Mahendra did not approve, so they just built it up to Baglung,” adds Mulmi. 

Pokhara’s sister city relations with eight Chinese cities is a source of soft power, and means there are frequent cultural exchanges. Pokhara is a household word in China because of the popular television serial Deng Feng Lai which was filmed on location here, and the main characters took a paragliding flight. Chinese visitors used to be the mainstay of Pokhara’s tourism till Covid.

Pokhara geopolitics

More than a year after the inauguration of Pokhara Airport, there are no regular international flights. India may be preventing flights to its cities, but it is Nepal’s failure that it has not been able to attract airlines to connect Pokhara to Chinese destinations. 

“This is because we went ahead and built an expensive airport without factoring in geopolitical sensitivities,” says foreign policy expert Krishna KC. “We have to convince the Indians that it is also in their interest to allow flights.” 

Chinese Ambassador Song announced at Pokhara Airport’s inauguration that it was a BRI project even though it predated the concept, and this ticked India off even more. Nepal’s unclear flip-flopping over the issue aggravated both sides, diplomatic sources say. 

Even so, most people here blame India for being petty-minded about not allowing new air routes making Pokhara operations feasible, as well as permitting connections to Indian cities. 

Professor of geostrategic studies Bhim Nath Baral says it is natural for both powerful countries to be concerned that Pokhara will be used against its national interest. 

“But it is up to Nepal to deploy diplomatic skills to understand and reassure both sides,” he adds. “That can only come with a mature and self-confident foreign policy.”