The Nepalese military is relatively small and poorly equipped. Its main mission is provide back up for police in maintaining domestic stability. Some Nepalese soldier have served in United Nations peacekeeping forces. A number of Nepalis, particularly of the hill ethnic groups, have served in Britain’s famed Gurkha regiments. To many villagers, service in the British Army not only is a matter of prestige it also offers a substantial economic opportunity. In some places remittances by soldiers is a major source of income and helps support the local economy. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Military and security forces: Nepal Army (includes Air Wing); Nepal Armed Police Force (under the Ministry of Home Affairs; paramilitary force responsible for border and internal security, including counter-insurgency, and assisting the Army in the event of an external invasion) (2019). Nepal doesn’t border any seas so it doesn’t have a navy. The Army Air Wing serves as its air force. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Defense spending: $387 million; 1.6 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (2019) (compared to 5.62 percent in Israel, 3.2 percent in the United States and 0.4 percent in Ghana). In past Nepal military expenditures were 1.6 percent of GDP in 2018; 1.7 percent of GDP in 2017; 1.7 percent of GDP in 2016; 1.6 percent of GDP in 2015). Compared with other countries in the world, Nepal ranks 75th.

Armed forces personnel (percentage of total labor force): 0.7 percent (compared to 9 percent in North Korea and 0.8 percent in the United States). [Source: World Bank ]

The Nepal Army has approximately 95,000 active troops (including a small air wing of about 500 personnel); approximately 15,000 Nepal Armed Police (2019 estimated) Number of people in the military: 111,600 (compared 74,200 in Argentina, 1,358,193 in the United States, 0 in Costa Rica, and 2,035,000 in China). In Nepal there are 96,000 in the active military; 0 in the reserve military; 15,000 in the paramilitary; 3.8 per 1,000 people (total); and 3.3 per 1,000 people (active) [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020; Wikipedia Wikipedia ]

Military equipment: The Army's inventory includes a mix of older equipment largely of British, Chinese, Indian, Russian, and South African origin. Since 2010, China, Italy, and Russia have been Nepal’s top suppliers of military hardware Nepal (2019 estimated). Main battle tanks: 0; Military aircraft: 0; Attack helicopters: 14.Nepal doesn’t border any seas so it doesn’t have any naval ships. The country is so mountainous — and swampy and jungly in places it is not — that tanks are of little use and it is hard make landing strips for military aircraft. The army air wing has used relatively small Polish-built M28 Skytruck prop planes and MI-17, HAL Lancer and HAL Dhruv helicopters. The UK gave gave two Britten-Norman Islander prop airplanes and two MI-17s for free. China decided to supply an MA-60 (a Y-7 derivative). Nepal has also purchased French-built HAL Cheetah and HAL Chetak helicopters. In November 2014, India gave an HAL Dhruv to Nepal as part of a strategic pact. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020, Wikipedia]

Military deployments: 720 Central African Republic (MINUSCA); 880 Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO); 350 Golan Heights (UNDOF); 860 Lebanon (UNIFIL); 230 Liberia (UNSMIL); 140 Mali (MINUSMA); 1,700 South Sudan (UNMISS) (April 2020)

Military service age: : 18 years of age for voluntary military service (including women); no conscription (2019)

Mission of the Nepalese Military

The primary mission of the armed forces was defense of territorial integrity against external attack. Wedged between India and China, however, Nepal was clearly unable to mount anything more than a token conventional defense in the face of overwhelming odds. By necessity, governments in Kathmandu have always had to rely on diplomacy and the restraint of neighbors, rather than Nepal's military strength, to ensure national survival. During peacetime, the army's routine border defense duties included assisting the police in antismuggling operations and providing security in remote regions where there was no police presence. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

In the event of conventional attack by either China or India, Nepalese military forces would mount a token defense to stall the enemy advance until international pressures could be mobilized to bring about a cease-fire and a return to the status quo. If international mediation failed, the military and police units that remained intact would withdraw from populated areas to lead a guerrilla war against occupation forces. Substantial numbers of Gurkha and Royal Nepal Army veterans also would be pressed into service, thereby multiplying the available military forces two or threefold. Nepal's position as a buffer state between two historically antagonistic powers also dictated that a beleaguered government in Kathmandu probably would appeal for assistance from the nonbelligerent neighbor.*

Most of Nepal's population outside the Kathmandu Valley lived in hamlets that were either cut off from the rest of the country or else connected only to a local economy and communications infrastructure. Hence, the loss of some rural districts during a conventional conflict would not necessarily bring about the capitulation of the entire country. Semiautonomous guerrilla bands acting under the direction of retired or serving military officers could operate almost indefinitely and substantially raise the costs of an occupying force. However, loss of the valley, the political and cultural nerve center of the nation, could well mean the end of organized resistance. Partly for this reason, Nepal's national defenses were deployed primarily to defend the capital area in general and the national leadership in particular.*

Geography also limited Nepal's capacity to mount a conventional defense of the nation. Although the Himalayas provided a nearly impenetrable shield against large-scale, rapid movement of troops from China, the harsh terrain also prevented Nepalese forces from erecting significant defenses along the 1,236-kilometer border. A paucity of roads, bridges, and airfields in the region would confine the Nepalese military response to provisioning scattered border outposts and positions near the mountainous tracks leading to some fifteen passes along the northern border. The only land corridor of any significance in a conflict with China would be the main road, built with Chinese assistance, that connected Kathmandu with Tibet. New Delhi has repeatedly expressed its fears that the road could serve as a Chinese invasion route, not a Nepalese resupply route.*

Mounting a conventional defense against India posed an equally daunting challenge. India boasted significant ground force assets along its 1,690-kilometer border with Nepal; moreover, these formations were connected by extensive lines of communication to the Indian heartland, where reinforcements could be introduced into Nepal in short order. Nepal had virtually no combat air capability and its rudimentary air defense assets were no match for the Indian Air Force, second in size and capabilities only to China's among Asia's air forces. Within Nepal, defense against a concerted Indian advance in the jungles and foothills of the Terai was clearly impractical. Although the East-West Highway, or Mahendra Highway, connecting the extreme ends of the country was nearing completion in 1991, most of Nepal's approximately 4,500 kilometers of allweather , motorable roads ran north-south, thereby complicating cross-country military movements. Avenues of approach leading north from India were considerably better developed than the generally primitive east-west lines of communication available to Nepalese forces. The country's rail network was limited to a forty-eight- kilometer spur line running from the border town of Raxaul to Amlekhganj and a fifty-three-kilometer narrow-gauge track from the Indian border town of Jaynagar to Janakpur and Bijalpura in Nepal.*

Defense Spending

Defense spending: $387 million; 1.6 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (2019) (compared to 5.62 percent in Israel, 3.2 percent in the United States and 0.4 percent in Ghana). In past Nepal military expenditures were 1.6 percent of GDP in 2018; 1.7 percent of GDP in 2017; 1.7 percent of GDP in 2016; 1.6 percent of GDP in 2015). Compared with other countries in the world, Nepal ranks 75th. In 2005, Nepal's defense budget totaled $151 million. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

Nepal’s defense budget and expenditures have grown substantially, although exact figures vary by source. According to the Ministry of Finance, from fiscal year (FY) 2001 to FY2005 Ministry of Defense expenditures grew from US$51.5 million to an estimated US$109.9 million. The Ministry of Defense has been budgeted approximately US$149.8 million for FY2006, but its expenditures often exceed its budget. In FY2004, for example, the defense budget was US$97.3 million but defense expenditures were US$110.5 million. [Source: Library of Congress, November 2005]

Nepal is one of the poorest nations in the world. With virtually no marketable national resources, the country's fiscal resources for maintaining a standing army were woefully inadequate. To compound matters, the country had virtually no capacity to provision its military beyond the most basic items such as food, clothing, and small-arms ammunition. Almost all of the army's equipment needs, such as airdefense guns and aircraft of all kinds, and its requirements for overhauling major equipment items were purchased abroad through scarce foreign exchange reserves or concessional terms. By any standard, the Royal Nepal Army faced severe resource constraints, even in comparison with other less- developed countries. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

Nevertheless, resources earmarked for the military represented a modest defense burden. According to 1989 estimates, approximately US$33 million, or 1.2 percent of the gross national product (GNP — see Glossary), was budgeted for defense. The defense outlay represented approximately 6.2 percent of the central government expenditures budget. Health, education, and economic development clearly took priority over defense. Defense budget figures must be used with caution, however. Most observers suspected that actual outlays for the military were buried in other budget categories or else handled discreetly under accounts controlled by the royal family. Much of the defense budget, however, paid for routine recurring costs, particularly salaries and pensions. The defense budget traditionally was not subjected to close public scrutiny, and all but the most generalized statistics were a closely guarded secret. As of mid-1991, it was unclear whether this pattern would hold true. The Parliament, now genuinely representative, was constitutionally responsible for passing the annual budget and overseeing national defense requirements, but had not yet had a chance to prove itself in practice.*

Internal Security Provided by the Nepal Military

Owing to its historical position as an instrument of royal authority, the army had always assumed the role of protecting the king against threats to his political as well as physical survival. In the modern era, the 28,000-strong Nepalese Police Force ordinarily was the first line of defense in combating incidents of political and criminal violence. A primary mission of the army, however, was to back up the police whenever additional coverage or firepower was required. This mission, known as "aid-to-the-civil-power" in British parlance, posed risks for the regular army. Detailing soldiers to arrest demonstrators, root out subversives, and fire on crowds risked tarnishing the army's reputation for impartiality. Moreover, overuse of the army in domestic peacekeeping tasks undermined military morale and discipline, upset routine training cycles, and diverted soldiers from conventional defense chores, such as border security. Ordinarily, the army preferred to leave routine internal security chores to the police. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

The army has performed aid-to-the-civil-power duties, including riot control and disaster relief. In the 1960s and 1970s, for example, the army conducted sporadic counterinsurgency operations against Tibetan Khampa guerrillas operating in the remote mountains of northwestern Nepal. The campaign, which was finally suppressed in 1974, employed small army units trained in counterguerrilla tactics.*

The army faced its most severe test during the strikes and demonstrations called by the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy, or prodemocracy movement, in the spring of 1990. The prodemocracy movement, composed of a broad spectrum of political parties led by the Nepali Congress Party and the United Left Front (a group of seven communist parties), staged a civil disobedience campaign in support of its demands for sweeping constitutional reforms. The police responded to the crescendo of protests by arresting movement leaders, closing the university and colleges, and censoring news reports of the disturbances. When these measures failed to check the demonstrations, security forces made mass arrests and resorted to firing on unruly, although usually unarmed, crowds. By March 1990, army units were heavily involved in putting down the protests and often staged "flag marches," or shows of force, to prevent crowds from gathering or to signal the government's determination to enforce emergency regulations. On April 6, the day after King Birendra reorganized his government and agreed to institute constitutional reforms, a crowd of as many as 200,000 strong gathered in downtown Kathmandu. By all accounts, the army panicked and fired on the crowd as it approached the palace, killing at least twenty-five protesters. All told, security forces reportedly killed at least fifty persons during the height of the protests between February and April.*

The national elections held in May 1991 witnessed an unprecedented peacetime mobilization of military force in Nepal. Many observers of the Nepalese political scene predicted widespread violence. To head off any trouble, the entire army was put on alert and deployed throughout the country to ensure a free and fair election. Its missions included protecting polling booths, monitoring campaign rallies, and patrolling streets and highways. In addition, 42,000 retired police and soldiers were pressed into temporary service. By all accounts, the army performed well. A minimum of violence and few electoral irregularities were reported. Once the voting was completed, the army returned to the barracks, police auxiliaries were relieved of their duties, and the regular police force resumed normal duties.*

Security Environment of Nepal

Throughout its modern existence, Nepalese foreign policy architects and defense planners have had to perform a precarious balancing act to ensure the nation's survival. As a protective measure, foreign troops were not allowed to be based in Nepal. This restriction remained in force as of 1991. Neither China nor India harbored territorial ambitions in Nepal; indeed, unlike many other land boundaries in South Asia, Nepal's frontiers were regarded by India and China as valid international boundaries. Nor did Nepal possess any natural resources or other economic assets that were coveted by either neighbor. Nevertheless, the country's geostrategic position between China's restive Tibetan population and the Indian heartland placed it in a vulnerable position. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

Terrain, weather, and logistic considerations presented special problems for defense planners and for any foreign forces that might have to operate in the country. Ground units had to be equipped to cope with climatic extremes of monsoonal rains and drought as well as jungle heat and high-altitude cold. Nepal's terrain ranged from the world's highest and most deeply gorged mountains to the swamps and dense jungles of the Terai. Troops operating in Nepal had ample cover, but crosscountry movement was extremely difficult. The use of motor transport — often in short supply in the Nepalese army — was impractical except for the short stretches where roads existed. Further, many roads and bridges were unsuitable for heavy military vehicles. In the higher elevations, supplies were moved by pack animals or human porters. Throughout the country, the terrain lent itself to the ambush and hit-and-run tactics that Nepalese units would employ during a partisan struggle. Thus, local inhabitants familiar with the countryside and accustomed to its severe climatic conditions would have a decided tactical advantage over invading forces.*

In the lowlands, ground movement was virtually impossible during the wet season because of extensive flooding, washed-out bridges, and deep mud. In the mountains, troops had to march single file over precarious trails subject to washouts, landslides, avalanches of boulders, ice, and snow. Stream crossing points often were limited to fords and unstable suspension bridges. Supply drops by helicopters and airplanes — both critically short in the Nepalese army — could be made only in favorable weather and in the restricted areas accessible to troops. Tribhuvan International Airport outside Kathmandu was the country's only airfield with sufficient capacity for large-scale military airlift and resupply operations. The airport's refueling capacity and aircraft maintenance facilities were marginal, however. Only five of Nepal's thirty-eight airfields had permanent-surface runways.*

Tropical diseases, such as malaria, and the danger of suffering pulmonary edema and frostbite during high-altitude operations further inhibited force sustainability. Medical equipment and supplies, most of which were imported from India, also were in short supply. Water supplies, although usually available in all but the most mountainous regions, often were contaminated and unfit for human consumption unless treated. Although army medical services were adequate for routine peacetime health care of soldiers and their families, sustained combat operations probably would overwhelm the country's underdeveloped health services. The army's premier medical facility, Birendra Hospital, was located in Kathmandu. As food production in most areas was barely sufficient to support the local population, wartime destruction of the agricultural infrastructure, particularly in the fertile Kathmandu Valley, would be likely to result in shortages and famine unless India or other foreign donors provided immediate emergency relief.*

Nepal’s Foreign Military Relations

Nepalese serve in both the British and Indian armies, but Nepal has no formal military links with other countries or intergovernmental organizations other than the United Nations. Since 2001, India, the United Kingdom, the United States, and other governments have provided various forms of assistance to combat the Maoist rebels. [Source: Library of Congress, November 2005 **]

The United Kingdom maintained a small military presence in Nepal involved in the recruitment and training of gurkha troops. In 2005, the British Gurkhas Nepal, a British Army organization, has 63 personnel engaged in recruitment, pension payment, and other administrative services for Nepalese that serve or have served in the British Army as part of the Brigade of Gurkhas. **

Nepal faces no threats from another country’s regular military forces. In 1975 King Birendra proposed that the UN declare Nepal a zone of peace, where military competition would be off-limits. In Birendra's view, the proposal symbolized Nepal's desire to maintain cordial relations with both its neighbors by placing internationally sanctioned restrictions on the use of military force (see Foreign Policy). [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991]

According to “Countries of the World and Their Leaders”: “The U.S. Pacific Command (USPA-COM) coordinates U.S. military engagement and security assistance with Nepal through the Office of Defense Cooperation. Cumulative U.S. military assistance to the Nepalese Army has consisted of $21.95 million in grant assistance: Foreign Military Financing (FMF) since 2002, annual professional and technical training provided under the International Military Education and Training Program (IMET grant for $650,000 in FY 2006), additional training provided under the Counter Terrorism (CT) Fellowship (approximately $200,000 annually), and approximately $2 million of Enhanced International Peacekeeping Capabilities (EIPC) funding to increase the pool of international peacekeepers and promote interoperability. Many Nepalese Army officers attend U.S. military schools, conferences and seminars such as those provided by the National Defense University (NDU) and the Asia Pacific Center for Strategic Studies (APCSS). [Source: “”Countries of the World and Their Leaders” Yearbook”, Gale, 2009]

Peacekeepers and Nepalese Military Forces Abroad

Nepal has provided many peacekeepers and Military forces abroad. Nepalese troops were stationed in 11 countries or regions as UN peacekeepers in 2005. Military deployments as April 2020: 720 Central African Republic (MINUSCA); 880 Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO); 350 Golan Heights (UNDOF); 860 Lebanon (UNIFIL); 230 Liberia (UNSMIL); 140 Mali (MINUSMA); 1,700 South Sudan (UNMISS). [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

The prestigious reputation of Nepalese soldiers is due in no small part to their foreign service. The Indian army has 40,000 Nepalese, and approximately 3,300 Nepalese serve in the British Army’s Brigade of Gurkhas. The number of Nepalese in the British Army has declined from the 8,000 that served in 1998 but remains one of Nepal’s most important sources of foreign exchange. Nepalese in the Brigade of Gurkhas may serve anywhere that British soldiers do, except Northern Ireland. Currently, all units of the Brigade of Gurkhas are stationed in the United Kingdom except the Gurkha battalion in Brunei, the British Gurkhas Nepal, and — through an arrangement with the British Army — the Gurkha Contingent of the Singapore Police Force. [Source: Library of Congress, November 2005]

Nepal is a member of the United Nations (UN) Disengagement Observer Force, and Nepalese troops also have been active in multilateral forces under UN auspices. As of January 2005, Nepal was the world’s fourth largest contributor of troops to peacekeeping missions, with 3,016 troops serving in various international peacekeeping operations. Since 1958, nearly 46,000 Nepalese troops have participated in 29 missions. As of 2005, Nepalese troops were serving in Burundi, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea and Ethiopia, Haiti, Israel and Syria, Kosovo, Liberia, the Middle East, and Sudan. Nepalese troops also have served in numerous other UN peacekeeping operations.

According to “Countries of the World and Their Leaders”: “Since 1958, the Nepalese Army has contributed over 50,000 peacekeepers to 28 peacekeeping missions such as the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), the UN Protection Force (UNPRO-FOR) in the former Yugoslavia, the UN Operational Mission in Somalia II (UNOSOMII), the UN Mission in Haiti (UNMIH), and the UN Mission of Support in East Timor (UNTAET). Nepalese Army units are presently serving in the UN Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAM-SIL), the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC), and the UN Mission in Haiti (MINUSTOH), among others. Approximately 3,400 of the world-famous Nepalese Gurkha forces serve in the British Army, and 40,000 serve in the Indian Army. [Source: “”Countries of the World and Their Leaders” Yearbook”, Gale, 2009]

Killing and Beheading of Nepalese Hostages in Iraq

In August 2004, 12 Nepalese hostages were kidnaped and executed in Iraq by an Iraqi militant group called Ansar al Sunna Army. The hostages had gone to Iraq to work as cooks and cleaners for a Jordanian firm. The militant group demanded that Nepal stop sending workers to Iraq. It was the single largest execution of foreign captives by Iraqi militants. [Source: Dhruba Adhikary and David Rohde, New York Times, September 2, 2004]

A website linked with an Iraqi militant group showed a video of what was purported to the execution of the 12 Nepalese hostages. The video shows a masked man in desert camouflage slitting the throat of a blindfolded man.. Moans and shrill wheezes are heard. The masked man displays the head of the victim and then sets it on the decapitated body. Other footage shows as single gunman firing bullets into back of the heads of 11 others, with blood spilling into the sand. The four-minute video ends with anti-American and anti-Iraqi-government statements and the assertion that the Nepalese government was a “lap dog of the Jews and Christians,” The video showing the beheading was widely viewed on the Internet.

The killing of the Nepalese hostages in Iraq was met with anti-Muslim riots and an attack on a mosque, media offices and Middle East and Pakistani airline offices in Kathmandu by crowds shouting “Down with Islam.” Thousands of Nepalese stormed the mosque, breaking windows, setting fire to carpets at the offices of Middle Eastern airlines. They broke windows and dragged computers into the street and set them on fire. Three rioters were killed by police when a mob gathered outside the Egyptian embassy and prepared to attack it. Authorities responded with a shoot-on-sight curfew. Hundreds of Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and Christians took to the streets calling for religious tolerance.

Nepal’s Military Relationship with India

Although landlocked Nepal was surrounded by both India and China, the kingdom's geographic, economic, and cultural orientation was more closely linked to India. Whereas many Nepalese stressed the differences that defined Nepal's national existence, India's policy makers tended to stress the similarities that bound the two countries together. According to New Delhi's perception, South Asia constituted an integral security unit in which India played the lead role. Many Nepalese resented this interpretation and accused India of being insensitive to Nepal's status as an independent nation. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

Despite New Delhi's insistence that stable, independent neighbors were vital to India's security, many Nepalese regarded India as a regional bully. Because of these differing attitudes, Nepal's relations with India oscillated considerably over the years, particularly in matters relating to security.*

In a speech before Parliament in 1950, the Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, summed up India's security concerns vis-à-vis Nepal. He stated: "From time immemorial, the Himalayas have provided us with magnificent frontiers. . . . We cannot allow that barrier to be penetrated, because it is also the principal barrier to India. Therefore, as much as we appreciate the independence of Nepal, we cannot allow anything to go wrong in Nepal or permit that barrier to be crossed or weakened, because that would be a risk to our own security." Nehru and his successors subsequently stated that any Chinese attack on Nepal would be regarded as aggression against India.*

Nepal and Sino-Indian Tensions

In 1950 China forcibly annexed Tibet, which New Delhi regarded as a buffer zone shielding the subcontinent from real or potential Chinese incursions. Nepal thus came to play a much larger role in India's security calculations. Fearing that China might eventually subvert or invade Nepal, India signed a Treaty of Peace and Friendship with the Rana regime in 1950. Although not a formal military alliance, the treaty required both parties to consult and "devise effective countermeasures" in the event of a security threat to either country. Nepal's inclusion in the Indian defense perimeter was made explicit by an exchange of secret letters — later made public — that accompanied the treaty, stating inter alia that "neither government shall tolerate any threat to the security of the other by a foreign aggressor." To assuage Nepalese fears of Indian domination, the treaty also stipulated that Indian forces could be introduced into the country only at the invitation of the Nepalese government. The two sides simultaneously signed a trade and transit agreement that extended reciprocal rights with regard to bilateral trade and residential arrangements as well as transshipment of Nepalese goods through India. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

In 1952 the Indian Military Mission arrived in Kathmandu to reorganize Nepal's armed forces and bring the kingdom's defenses more in line with India's security requirements. In implementing changes, Nepal drastically reduced the size of its postwar army and revamped its training and organization along Indian lines. Indian advisers also played key roles in training the civil service and police force. Many Nepalese — military officers and civil servants, in particular — were outraged by India's actions, which they saw as an insult to national self-respect. Indian influence was further strengthened, however, by the cooperation of both countries' militaries on several occasions in the 1950s, when at Nepal's request Indian troops helped quell disturbances near their common boundary. As Sino-Indian tensions mounted in the late 1950s, Indian soldiers and technicians assisted in staffing some of the checkposts on the frontier with Tibet. Despite close military ties, Nepal, however, has never allowed garrisoning of Indian troops or joint military exercises in the country.*

In 1962 Indian and Chinese forces fought a brief but decisive war over desolate stretches of their disputed frontier. India's unprepared forces suffered a humiliating defeat, despite the fact that China unilaterally withdrew its forces after several weeks of heavy fighting. Although Nepal did not become embroiled in the fighting and both belligerents respected the kingdom's territorial integrity, the war reinforced Nepalese perceptions of their country's perilous role as a Sino-Indian security buffer.*

Because of India's growing influence and Nepal's corresponding dependence on India, international diplomacy has always been a vital element of Nepal's survival strategy. Nepal was an active participant and a voice of moderation in the United Nations (UN) and the Nonaligned Movement, although the viability of the latter organization was in doubt after the end of the Cold War. In addition, Nepal firmly supported the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) headquartered in Kathmandu. SAARC eschewed any role in regional security because the threats perceived by Nepal and the other small states of the region were often at variance with those perceived by India.*

Dispute Between India and Nepal in the Late 1980s-Early 1990s

Nepalese-Indian relations underwent major jolts over a protracted period starting in 1988. In June of that year, Birendra concluded a secret arms purchase with China, whereby Beijing would supply obsolescent air defense artillery at bargain prices. India probably learned of the deal within days or weeks of the agreement and protested vigorously that Birendra's action had violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the 1950 treaty. Although the appearance of a limited number of vintage air defense weapons hardly represented a threat to Indian Air Force contingency plans, India interpreted the sale as a dangerous precedent that could not go unchallenged. As bilateral tensions mounted, India added other complaints regarding Nepal's supposed insensitivity to India's vital interests. Birendra, capitalizing on nationalistic fervor, was intransigent and insisted that Nepal had the sovereign right to determine its own defense requirements. He also pointed out that Nepal's use of air defense assets against India would never arise as long as Indian fighters respected Nepalese air space; New Delhi countered that the only plausible use for the weapons was against India.*

In March 1989, the Nepal-India trade and transit agreement came up for renewal. India's prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, refused to extend the agreement unless Nepal agreed to meet India's commercial and defense concerns. After both sides refused to back down, India allowed the agreement to lapse and closed thirteen of the fifteen border checkposts that regulated most of Nepal's trade with the outside world. The blackade was a severe blow to Nepal because there were no other reliable transit routes. The Chinese rail line in Tibet ended 800 kilometers short of the Nepalese border, and the road linking Kathmandu and Tibet was closed much of the year by avalanches and monsoon landslides. Although the Nepalese army was pressed into action to keep Nepal's section of the road open to the extent possible, it could improve the situation only to a limited extent. Pakistan and Bangladesh were hardly in a position to supply major assistance because their only land routes to Nepal traversed India. The Soviet Union, the United States, and other Western powers quietly declined to take sides and urged India and Nepal to return to the bargaining table.*

In the final analysis, the dispute underscored a central geopolitical reality: landlocked Nepal did not have the military, diplomatic, or economic clout to withstand an Indian blockade as long as the government in New Delhi was willing to risk international opprobrium and press its case against the kingdom. Many Nepalese saw New Delhi's actions as "punishment" for Birendra's show of independence and as a manifestation of India's supposed policy of isolating and subjugating its smaller neighbors. Some Nepalese observers, however, criticized Birendra's handling of the dispute, arguing that the king harnessed popular fervor against India to rally patriotic support behind the palace.*

Some fifteen months of economic dislocations and diplomatic recriminations placed heavy pressure on both sides to halt the slide in relations. Finally, both sides reaffirmed the 1950 treaty, and Kathmandu agreed not to purchase defense items abroad without consulting New Delhi. Birendra requested that China stop delivery of a final shipment of air defense equipment. Relations gradually returned to normal and improved significantly after Nepal's democratically elected government assumed office in May 1991. The dispute convinced many Nepalese, however, that India had the capacity and will to pressure small neighbors in pursuit of its foreign policy objectives — a message that New Delhi clearly intended to convey to Beijing.*

Nepal’s Military Relationship with China

Nepal's security relations with China dated at least as far back as the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century, Nepal gained the upper hand over Tibet, then a semiautonomous vassal state of China. In the latter part of the twentieth century, however, Nepal's dealings with China generally had been kept on an even keel, except when India expressed strong disapproval, as in the aftermath of China's 1988 sale of air defense weapons to Nepal. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

The earliest defense pact with China was the Sino-Nepalese Treaty of 1792, signed after the Chinese had defeated the forces of the Gorkha kingdom at Nawakot, some seven kilometers northwest of modern Kathmandu. Under this treaty, the signatories agreed that they would regard China as a "father" to them and affirmed their understanding that China would come to the aid of Nepal should it ever be invaded by a foreign power — although no such assistance occurred during the Anglo-Nepalese War of 1814-16. In the mid-nineteenth century, however, forces from the kingdom of Gorkha were on the move northward. The Nepalese-Tibetan Treaty of Thapathali, signed in 1856 at the conclusion of a successful two-year campaign in Tibet, stipulated that Tibet pay annual tribute to Nepal and grant certain extraterritorial rights to Nepalese traders. It also pledged a mutual policy of nonaggression, and China agreed to come to Nepal's assistance should Nepal be invaded by the forces of "any other prince." A century later, in September 1956, the agreement was replaced by a treaty of amity and commerce with China's new communist regime, ending Nepal's tributary income and extraterritorial privileges.*

Although China offered to sign nonaggression or mutual defense pacts with Nepal, the kingdom always turned down the offers in deference to Indian sensitivities. In the 1950s, Nepal's anticommunist rulers, spurred on by Indian advisers, regarded China as a potential threat and enacted various military reforms and laws to combat Chinese propaganda and subversion. In 1961 King Mahendra visited Beijing and signed an agreement to construct a highway, named the Arniko Highway, from Kathmandu to Kodari on the Tibetan border. As of 1991, this highway remained the only major artery linking the two countries. Nepal generally preferred to keep relations with China low-key to avoid offending India. The 1988 decision to purchase Chinese air defense weapons was a glaring exception to this rule.*

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Nepal Tourism Board (, Nepal Government National Portal (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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