Rivals India, China win hearts, minds in quake-hit Nepal

02 May 2015
Rivals India, China win hearts, minds in quake-hit Nepal
Indian Air Force personnel carrying an injured person flown by an IAF aircraft from earthquake hit Nepal at Air Force Station, Palam, New Delhi, India, May 1, 2015. Photo: EPA

At Pokhara airport in the Himalayas, Indian soldiers race back and forth loading rice, blankets, tarpaulins and other aid onto waiting helicopters for delivery to Nepal's quake-devastated villages.
In the ruined ancient town of Bhaktapur outside the capital Kathmandu, Chinese rescuers in blue uniforms search for survivors in the rubble of toppled temples and homes.
Nepal's overwhelmed government has been criticised by frustrated residents, hundreds of thousands of whom are desperate for assistance after last Saturday's monster quake. But foreign countries, with their medics, specialist rescuers and helicopter sorties, have won applause, with giant neighbour India sometimes singled out for praise as the biggest provider.
"We are hungry, we have no food, and we've had no help from our own government," Arjun Budhathoki, 30, said as he queued, along with thousands of others, for a bus out of Kathmandu this week.
"The Indian government is the only one helping our citizens, they are doing so much for us," Mr Budhathoki said.
India and economic powerhouse China have long vied for influence in the impoverished Himalayan country, which was ripped apart by the quake, leaving more than 6,200 people dead.
China has dispatched about 300 personnel to Nepal and announced about US$10 million in aid so far, according to state media.
Wiping the tears
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised to "wipe the tears of every Nepali" while the country's air force alone has sent 950 personnel and dropped more than 400 tonnes of aid across the country.
India's hyperactive media have devoted hours to the country's assistance, including plucking stranded climbers from Everest base camp. But analyst Rajrishi Singhal said India's efforts involved a degree of self-interest.
"We share a long border with Nepal and any turmoil there can spill into India," Mr Singhal, senior fellow at the Gateway House think tank in Mumbai, said. "It is in our interest to see that Nepal gets back on its feet as soon as possible."
Mr Singhal said both India and China could play a significant role in Nepal's reconstruction once the relief effort has concluded.
"Affordable housing is one area where India can really help Nepal because we have seen the large-scale devastation and the way houses have been destroyed," he said. "In that sense when it comes to rebuilding and reconstruction, both India and China must be prepared for the long haul in Nepal."
Beijing has swept aside any suggestion it is being overshadowed by its rival in the quake zone, although it says it is planning to "intensify our efforts in disaster relief".
"The assistance shows that all the Asian countries are part of the community of common destiny and we will work together with Nepal to help them rebuild their homeland as soon as possible," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in Beijing on Thursday.
Nepal's Foreign Minister Mahendra Bahadur Pandey has attempted to strike a balance, saying his government is grateful to its "very good friend" India, but also quick to mention China.
Different zones
"They (China) too are sending teams of people and medicines," Mr Pandey said in an interview with the Indian Express newspaper on Tuesday. "They are trying their best to rescue our people. We have divided areas between India and China."
Mr Modi, a staunch Hindu nationalist, has made clear since being elected last May that boosting India's influence in its backyard is a priority. But India has long struggled to compete with the financial muscle of China, which has for years been building roads and investing billions of dollars in hydropower and communications in Nepal.
Chinese state media said last month that a railway between Tibet and Nepal is under consideration that could include a tunnel under Everest.
Beijing's increasing role has raised alarm in Delhi amid concerns China, already allied to Pakistan, is also forging closer economic ties with other neighbours such as Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
China has in the past come under criticism for a sluggish response to humanitarian crises, including after Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013 when it initially offered only $100,000.
Analyst Amitabh Mattoo said this time China seemed to be upping the ante.
"China is using aid and help in Nepal as an instrument of its foreign policy," said Mr Mattoo, a professor at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University.
At Pokhara airport, Indian Wing Cmdr Suraj Shankar was oblivious to any jostle for influence as he talked of his troops' efforts.
"So far they've evacuated up to 50 casualties and 180 stranded villagers. They've dropped off about 16 tonnes of relief material," he told AFP.
"As far as India is concerned, obviously our neighbours are the dearest to us and we would do anything to help."