BEIJING – Wedged between the two rising Asian powers of China and India, landlocked Nepal watched rescuers and offers of help pour in from both sides within hours of a major earthquake last weekend that killed more than 4,000 people.
India, the traditional power in the region, launched Operation Friendship soon after Saturday’s quake. It has sent the most help so far, deploying 13 aircraft and more than 500 rescuers as well as water, food, equipment and medical supplies.
China, increasingly making inroads in Nepal through everything from infrastructure investment to increased tourism, also pledged all-out assistance within hours of the disaster. It has sent 62 rescuers plus blankets, tents and generators and announced plans to send four planes and an additional 170 soldiers.
India’s rival, Pakistan, also has sent four cargo planes full of supplies, including concrete cutters and sniffer dogs.
The largess of recent days is a microcosm of something much larger. It represents a subtle brand of disaster politics, a curious but understandable focus on strategically located Nepal, one of the poorest nations in its region but — clearly — a pocket of regional importance for powerful neighbors jockeying for position.
Nepal’s population of 27 million traditionally has fallen under India’s economic and political sway. India, also a predominantly Hindu nation, considers Nepal within its traditional sphere of influence, and as many as 3 million Nepalese live and work in India.
But recent years have seen Nepal forge closer ties with China as a counterweight, and the Nepalese government has assured Beijing that it will not tolerate any anti-China political activism by Tibetans living in Nepal.
An increasingly expansive Beijing, meanwhile, is eager to court the Nepalese government as it opens trade routes south and westward and seeks to keep the neighboring country’s exiled Tibetan community from fomenting unrest across the border in China-controlled Tibet.
China also is aiming to “shoulder more international responsibilities and duties” as its economy and global profile increases, said Wang Lian, an expert on South Asian affairs at Peking University’s School of International Studies.
“When China walks the walk and fulfills its duties, it will certainly boost its influence in South Asia and add to the good will that the Nepalese public has toward China,” Wang said.
Diplomats in Nepal’s neighboring countries deny any rivalry in aid efforts. Still, the quake has provided a venue for them to display their strengths in humanitarian assistance and, by extension, their relative sway.
While China’s relief efforts may not rival India’s in Nepal quite yet, its offers of investment in the power industry and other infrastructure could give India some substantial competition, said S.D. Muni, an Indian expert on Nepal with the government-run think thank Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses.
“The Chinese have sent their first relief team, and they would certainly provide economic assistance to Nepal, which finds itself in a terrible condition,” Muni said.
With nearly $4 trillion in foreign currency reserves and a vast engineering and manufacturing capacity, China is likely to play a major role in Nepal’s rebuilding process. China also has been planning to extend railway tracks to the border with Nepal that may eventually connect to Kathmandu.
All these investments are part of Beijing’s ambitious plans to build infrastructure across a broad swath of southern and Central Asia, as highlighted in a recent pledge to invest as much as $46 billion in Pakistan.
Pakistan, which had sent four C-130 aircraft to Nepal by Monday, views its neighbor as a supportive but independent voice in the region, while India feels it needs to keep Nepal on its side as China boosts its involvement there, said Pakistani defense analyst Talat Masood, a former army general.
“The very strategic position of Nepal makes it very important for Pakistan, India and China,” Masood said.
In India, both state and private television networks have been providing around-the-clock coverage of the quake highlighting India’s response with military aircraft and helicopters flying overhead and rescue workers digging survivors and bodies from mangled debris. Indian teams report rescuing 200 people so far.
In China, state broadcaster CCTV gave prominent coverage to a red-suited team of Chinese rescuers pulling a man from debris in Kathmandu on Sunday.
According to the Nepal Army, which is involved in the rescue effort, rescuers and medical teams from at least a dozen countries are already in the country and helping. Even its tiny Himalayan neighbor, Bhutan, which expelled ethnic Nepalese in the 1990s, has a medical team on hand.
According to the army, teams from Russia, Japan, France, Switzerland and Singapore will arrive in the next couple of days.
Nepalese officials have expressed their gratitude for the help so far from neighboring countries, while also acknowledging they are overwhelmed and need still more help.
“We have been under severe stress and pressure,” and emergency teams have been unable to reach many people who need help, Chief Secretary Lila Mani Poudyal said at a news conference Monday afternoon.
“We have one team from China who are supposed to be the best and already working in several spots in Kathmandu,” he said, while adding that “Our priority is now to restore electricity power. We have just received an expert team from India who are going to help us.”