A tweaked new map of a relatively small section of the Himalayas has stoked simmering tensions between two of the world’s biggest military powers.
Nepal has formally approved a revised map of its nation this week, and there are three areas which it now says belongs to them.
It’s giant neighbour India, which believes the hotly contested areas belong to them, is not happy with the bold move from Nepal.
It comes amid a period of heightened tension in the region as India and China are locked in a military standoff in the northern Ladakh region of disputed Kashmir, where troops have been facing off for weeks.
Nepal is sandwiched between the two superpowers, and it has reacted with anger to a seperate revised map, one put out by the Indian government.
The new Indian map shows disputed areas, claimed by Nepal, belonging to them.
On top of that, a new Indian road on a strategic mountain pass has added fuel to the fire.
Tensions rose dramatically last month with India’s inauguration of a Himalayan link road built in a disputed region that lies at a strategic three-way junction with Tibet and China.
The 80km road, inaugurated by Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, cuts through the Lipu Lekh Himalayan pass, considered one of the shortest and most feasible trade routes between India and China.
Nepal fiercely contested the inauguration of the road and viewed the alleged incursion as a stark example of bullying by its much larger neighbour, triggering a fresh dispute over the strategically important territory.
In retaliation, Nepal created a new political map that showed the disputed territory within its borders.
India was not happy with it to say the least.
“We urge the government of Nepal to refrain from unjustified cartographic assertion and respect India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the Indian foreign ministry said in a statement.
Nepal, which was never under colonial rule, has long claimed the areas of Limpiyadhura, Kalapani and Lipu Lekh in accordance with the 1816 Sugauli treaty with the British Raj.
However, all the three contested areas have been firmly under India’s control since India fought a war with China in 1962.
The people living there are now Indian citizens, pay taxes in India and vote in the Indian elections.
China has also thrown its influence into the mix.
That’s because Beijing considers Nepal a key partner in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It is looking to invest in infrastructure there as part of its $1.5 trillion plan to exert its influence around the world.
When President Xi Jinping visited last year he was the first Chinese leader to visit Nepal since 1996, and it was there the two countries decided to upgrade their ties to a “strategic partnership”.
This has led to theories that Nepal’s new-found confidence to take on India has been driven behind-the-scenes by China.
Media and some officials in India have even accused China of requesting the changes to Nepal’s map, a claim to which China has not responded.
Nepal’s foreign minister said this week the country was still waiting for a response from India on holding talks to resolve a border dispute that has strained relations between the South Asian neighbours.
Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali told The Associated Press that requests to talk were made in November and December last year, and again in May.
“We have expressed time and again that Nepal wants to sit at the table to resolve this problem,” Mr Gyawali said.
“We are waiting for formal negotiations so that these two countries with … a very unique type of partnership can develop a more inspiring relationship that reflects the requirements of the 21st century.
There have been reports that India does not want to hold negotiations with Nepal until its coronavirus outbreak is brought under control.
This all comes amid a military build-up at the border between the China and India.
This week, China said it had reached a “positive consensus” with India over resolving the situation.
Tensions flare on a fairly regular basis between the two regional powers over their 3500km frontier, which has never been properly demarcated.
Thousands of troops from the two nuclear-armed neighbours have been involved in the latest face-off since May in India’s Ladakh region, just opposite Tibet — before signs in recent days that a resolution was in sight.
Overnight China’s state media said it has sent the nation’s most powerful howitzers join northwestern exercises amid border tensions.
However, a “positive consensus” on resolving the latest border issue was achieved following “effective communication” through diplomatic and military channels, said foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying at a press briefing.
“Currently both sides are taking appropriate actions to ease the border situation based on this consensus,” she said.
She gave no further details, and New Delhi had said on Sunday only that the two countries had agreed to “peacefully resolve” the border flare-up after a high-level meeting between army commanders on Saturday.
In a later statement India’s foreign ministry said the two sides would “continue the military and diplomatic engagements to resolve the situation and to ensure peace and tranquillity in the border areas.”
But sources and Indian news reports suggest that India appears to have effectively ceded to China areas that the People’s Liberation Army occupied in recent weeks, notably parts of the northern side of the Pangong Tso lake and some of the strategically important Galwan river valley.
“The Chinese are refusing to move back from their newly captured positions both in Pangong and Galwan valley. They are consolidating the new status quo,” a senior Indian military officer stationed in the region told AFP on condition of anonymity.
He added that the Chinese had only “thinned their troop concentration at these two places somewhat.”