The Buzz

Nepal's Massive Earthquake: How Will China & India Respond?

In recent years, strategic rivalry between India and China has been evident across the Indo-Pacific, with Beijing progressively growing its diplomatic, economic and military influence on India's land and maritime periphery, and India belatedly pushing back to preserve its once privileged position in nations like Sri Lanka and Myanmar.

Much like Cold War era competition between the US and the Soviet Union, this dynamic has given attractive options to local governments adept enough to play the risky game of playing off one nation against the other. The most prominent example has been Sri Lanka's ability to secure Chinese assistance in facilitating one of the most brutal counterinsurgency campaigns of recent times, before pivoting back towards India earlier this year.

Nepal's massive earthquake is first and foremost a human tragedy, killing upwards of 4000 people and placing a weak and under-resourced government under overwhelming stress. But the response has also been marked by elements of the same regional competition.

India, China, and Pakistan have all rushed to offer assistance and evacuate their nationals. As part of its “Operation Maitri,” India is using 12 military transport aircraft and 18 helicopters to drop aid into Kathmandu, evacuate Indian nationals (over 2000 by air so far), and most importantly, ferry at least ten 45-strong teams of the National Disaster Response Force to assist with search and rescue, many of whom reached the worst-affected areas near the epicenter on Monday. India has also set up three field hospitals with 18 medical teams.

Indian efforts are headquartered in Kathmandu under a Major General of the Gorkha Rifles, with a high degree of coordination between the Nepalese Army and Indian units, aided by the close, longstanding ties between the two forces (28,000 Gorkhas serve in the Indian Army, with another 125,000 retired in Nepal). Indian power grid officials have traveled to Nepal to help restore power, with an Indian Oil Corporation team following.

Nepal is a special case because of its deep and organic ties with New Delhi, the sheer heft of Indian diplomats, spies and military officers in Nepalese politics, and because of its proximity to India itself. Indian Prime Minister Modi has already visited Nepal twice since coming to power last year (for an excellent survey of India's policy dilemmas there, see this February piece by the authoritative journalist Prashant Jha). A significant part of this attention has been motivated by concern over China's growing footprint, including arms sales after India's 2005 cut-off, infrastructure projects and a close interest in 20,000 Tibetan refugees. Soutik Biswas observes that China overtook India as Nepal's largest foreign investor last year.

While China's relief efforts have been rapid, they have also been modest. The argument that “China's involvement...could further change the balance of power in the region, challenging India and potentially putting Nepal's Tibetan exile community at risk” is greatly exaggerated.

Nevertheless, Indian policymakers would have been aware that a delayed or mishandled relief effort could have not just humanitarian but also long-term diplomatic consequences (Keith Johnson notes in Foreign Policy that Beijing's response to the 2013 Philippines typhoon “helped further sour tensions with Manila”). One study even talks about “disaster relief diplomacy.’