Letter From Kathmandu

Nepal’s Two Boulders

Courtesy Reuters

The half-built road to Lamabagar, a Nepalese farming village near the border with Tibet, has the feel of an active war zone. Clouds of rock explode from the cliffs as construction workers blast a path north toward the Tibet Autonomous Region of China. Porters lumber up the twisting Himalayan switchbacks with boxes of dynamite strapped to their heads. The road is meant to connect the district capital of Dolakha with a hydroelectric dam at the north end of the valley, though one day it may continue north, giving this Himalayan buffer state a vital new overland route to China. All the commotion is purposeful since Nepal is plagued by chronic electricity shortages, which the 456-megawatt plant, scheduled to open in 2014, is meant to address.

The Nepali crews that inch closer to China, bringing heavy trucks to a valley that has known only foot traffic, are at the forefront of a potentially major strategic shift in the region: Nepal, long a dependable ally and client of India, is building economic and political ties with China. Good roads are just one sign of this relationship and, as Rhoderick Chalmers, an International Crisis Group analyst in Kathmandu, explained to me, could "prevent India from using its ultimate sanction of economic blockade on Kathmandu." If China can begin supplying many of the goods that Nepal now receives from India -- especially petrol, diesel, and kerosene -- then India's leverage would be severely limited.

Although one new highway will not in itself push Nepal from India's sphere of influence -- history, economics, and above all, geography will see to that -- the mere fact that India may one day have to compete for Nepal's attention is a sign of Kathmandu's political reorientation. In 2006, as Nepal's monarchy teetered, Maoist leaders and pro-democracy parties signed a comprehensive peace agreement ending a decade-long civil war. Since then, Kathmandu has been building a nascent democracy while wedged in a proxy battle between China and India -- with the United States

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