China’s rise, and more recently, India’s, have altered relations across Asia, leading to speculation about how the two giants will assert their influence in the region and globally in the coming decades. Significant tensions between China and India include a still-unresolved border dispute, and India’s fear that China seeks to establish strategic corridors on land and sea that could hem in India. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is the latest, and most expansive, development illustrating this concern.
In 1962, China and India fought a war over their shared border to no resolution. The territorial dispute remains live, and border incursions continue. Additionally, China’s economic heft, its increasing trade with smaller South Asian countries, and its outsized ability to offer infrastructure financing, has led to an economic competition for influence in the region.
At the same time, China and India have emphasized bilateral trade, which passed $70 billion in 2014, and economic ties as a means of strengthening their relationship. Trade efforts have created tension of their own though, since the balance heavily favors China. In recent years, Indian officials have expressed the need to promote Indian exports to China to redress the imbalance. The challenge for China and India in the longer term will be to find meaningful areas for cooperation to build confidence and defuse tensions as they continue down their paths of growth and development. The success of their recent experience working under emergency circumstances in Nepal offers a new area to build engagement and prepare the region for future disasters.
‘A yam between two boulders’
When an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale shook Nepal in April 2015, China and India responded quickly by dispatching search-and-rescue teams and delivering tons of emergency supplies. News reports initially described their relief efforts as motivated by a bid for geopolitical influence. But in a surprising development, both China and India demonstrated cooperative leadership in the immediate response and agreed to continue working together in post-earthquake reconstruction. Their experience in Nepal offers an example of cooperation that has the potential to build trust and create a channel of positive interaction.
Nepal is a small Himalayan nation of thirty million people wedged between China and India—“a yam between two boulders,” as a former king of Nepal once remarked. Landlocked and impoverished, Nepal manages its relationships with China and India carefully to attract and maximize the economic resources of its rising neighbors, and is canny about the competition between them.
India and Nepal share an open border, which has helped maintain a history of civilizational ties, and situated India as Nepal's primary economic partner. Nepal’s border with China is both heavily regulated and geographically reinforced by the Himalayan Mountains.
India and Nepal’s close relationship is not without challenges. Their size and power disparity has led to tensions whenever Nepalis feel that India has intruded on domestic politics or matters of sovereignty. A current disagreement over Nepal’s new constitution is a case in point.
During the Maoist insurgency in Nepal, which ended in 2006, and in the politically turbulent years thereafter, the Himalayan nation welcomed deeper relations with China to hedge against Indian influence on its economy and politics. China offered trade and investment, and gained Nepal’s adherence to the “One China” policy. (Nepal rejected Taiwan’s offer to send a search-and-rescue team after the April 2015 earthquake.) In 2014, China outpaced India in investments in Nepal, a trend that is expected to continue. Still, India remains invaluable to Nepal’s economy as its top trading partner and the source of nearly $1 billion in annual remittances from Nepali migrant workers.
Cooperation Among Competitors
The earthquake that struck Nepal on April 25, and the subsequent aftershocks, left close to nine thousand people dead, almost three million people in need of assistance, and close to one million homes damaged or destroyed, according to the Nepali government and the United Nations.
Nepal Earthquake Epicenter
India, where tremors were felt as far as Delhi, was the first foreign responder (PDF) on the scene. Within three hours of the quake, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi began coordinating a response involving the armed forces, the National Disaster Response Force, medical teams, and volunteers. China dispatched a team the following morning. A Nepali government document (PDF) shows that China and India had 370 and 962 active personnel, respectively, in Nepal as of May 1, 2015.
The Nepali army took the lead in coordinating the response, according to Dr. Arjun Karki, the ambassador of Nepal to the United States, dividing up the affected territory into separate zones, in a bid to keep air traffic organized as teams from different countries flew in and out of Nepal. A Nepali liaison officer coordinated with the country team assigned to each area.
The Indian and Chinese teams primarily carried out their efforts alongside, rather than in concert with, each other, but this parallel cooperation was considered by both countries to be a positive experience worth exploring.
On May 5, the Nepali government released an update on relief operations that included foreign military deployment (PDF) inside the Kathmandu Valley and beyond. Chinese and Indian teams (alongside teams from Bangladesh, Israel, Japan, Pakistan, and Thailand) provided assistance in the Kathmandu Valley. Elsewhere, Chinese personnel (with Algerian and Sri Lankan deployments) worked in the district of Sindhupalchok, an area northeast of Kathmandu that borders Tibet and contains the China-Nepal border crossing at Kodari. Indian teams also worked with Singaporean deployments west of Kathmandu, in Gorkha and Dhading.
Deployment Assignments Within Kathmandu Valley
Deployment Assignments Outside Kathmandu Valley
Although the teams mostly coordinated through Nepali officials, China “began a communication with the Indian side, and…remained in close touch with India on how to help Nepal,” both on the ground and through the Chinese embassy in India, according to the Chinese foreign ministry. The Nepali government compiled information from some international search-and-rescue teams, showing that in the first week following the quake Chinese teams saved two lives, recovered ten bodies, and treated fifty-seven victims; Indian teams saved eleven lives, recovered 128 bodies, and treated 1,045 earthquake victims. The Chinese and Indian teams primarily carried out their efforts alongside, rather than in concert with, each other, but this parallel effort was considered by both countries to be a positive experience worth exploring in the future.
Chinese and Indian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and foundations also complemented each other in relief efforts in Nepal. These NGOs had previously gained experience by responding to disasters close to home—Indian NGOs in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and Chinese NGOs in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake—but many had not worked abroad before the Nepal earthquake. They faced similar challenges without prior experience in transferring funds internationally, navigating customs procedures for relief supplies, and assessing needs in a foreign country.
Many Chinese and Indian organizations, eager to help, turned to international NGO partners or local Nepali NGOs to lead the response. Chinese organizations paired teamed up with groups including the One Foundation and Save the Children to assist with needs assessment, and the Amity Foundation partnered with the local Lutheran World Federation Nepal. The Indian NGO Akshaya Patra and the Jamsetji Tata Trust worked with the Nepali NGO Sipradiyan Sahayata to distribute meals to thousands of people in one of the worst-hit areas.
South Asia sits at the intersection of tectonic plates and as a result is particularly vulnerable to earthquakes. Chinese NGOs are keen to build their capacities for international humanitarian work, and Indian NGOs will also likely be more involved in future relief operations region-wide and could benefit from training to work in international humanitarian coordination mechanisms.
Indian and Chinese efforts to introduce and enhance regional disaster relief cooperation as a viable area for collaboration could help bridge differences between countries that share geographic vulnerabilities.
In the aftermath of the earthquake, both Beijing and New Delhi upheld their experiences in Nepal as an example of positive cooperation. They agreed to continue working together during the reconstruction phase. In an interview with India Today, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang noted the “good communication and coordination” between the two countries in their respective responses to the earthquake. Similarly, in a speech at Tsinghua University on a state visit to China, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pitched future India-China collaboration, stating, “wherever possible and feasible, we should work together, as we did in responding to the earthquake in Nepal.” During the same visit, Beijing and New Delhi signed a memorandum of understanding between India’s Ministry of Earth Sciences and the China Earthquake Administration to lay the groundwork for formal cooperation on earthquake science and engineering.
At a donor’s conference held in Kathmandu in June 2015 to secure aid pledges for Nepal's reconstruction costs, India pledged $1 billion in the form of grants and loans, while China pledged almost half a billion dollars in grants. China will also likely leverage its various mechanisms, such as its own One Belt One Road fund, plus the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and the New Development Bank (BRICS bank), for infrastructure financing to help with the rebuilding process. As other countries and NGOs withdraw from Nepal, China and India have agreed to continue their parallel cooperation; for now, they await movement from Nepal’s newly established National Reconstruction Authority, which has yet to collect the pledges made at the donor’s conference.
Future Humanitarian Cooperation in Asia
As China and India phase their efforts to assist in the reconstruction of their neighbor, the case for strengthening regional preparedness for future disasters is resonating. The region's vulnerability to earthquakes, floods, and tsunamis underlines the need for greater preparation among countries. As aspiring great powers, Beijing and New Delhi shoulder assume greater responsibility in ensuring the stability and resilience of southern Asia, and as such, their cooperation is essential. Perhaps as important are the side effects of this cooperation: building mutual trust and political goodwill in the region.
At the 2015 Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Ufa, Russia, where India and Pakistan were accepted as full members, Chinese President Xi Jinping stated China’s support for “enhanced cooperation” among members on disaster relief. Following the earthquake in Nepal , Indian Prime Minister Modi “suggested that South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries should conduct regular joint exercises on disaster relief and rescue,” in a phone call with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif; this resulted in the creation of the South Asian Annual Disaster Management Exercise. Chinese and Indian efforts to introduce and enhance regional disaster relief cooperation as a viable area for collaboration could help bridge differences between countries that share geographic vulnerabilities. It also provides an avenue for militaries accustomed to facing-off along tense borders to work together in a collaborative context far from confrontation. In October, China and India prioritized disaster relief in their Kunming “hand-in-hand” joint military exercise. Lt. General A.L. Chavan of the Indian Army told the Hindu that the “willingness to expand” upon the exercises was there; his counterpart, Major General Zhang Bing similarly said that “China is waiting to expand the scope of exchange and cooperation between our two armies.” Disaster relief exercises are off to a good start as a confidence-building mechanism between China and India.
“Disaster diplomacy” has long been touted as a way to catalyze cooperation between countries adverse or not accustomed to working together. Nepal’s strategic location almost guaranteed strong responses from China and India, but their coordination throughout the search, rescue, and medical treatment of victims, and their expressed interest in continuing cooperation during Nepal’s reconstruction was more surprising. It bodes well for future humanitarian emergencies in Asia, whether another earthquake, or another natural disaster. As China and India continue to grow more powerful, their cooperation will be crucial to the prosperity of the region. Joint efforts on humanitarian assistance offer an avenue to continue building trust.
This Expert Brief is part of a CFR project on the New Geopolitics of China, India, and Pakistan, supported in part by a generous grant from the MacArthur Foundation.