Did Nepal Just Reject Earthquake Relief to Avoid Offending China?

April 27, 2015 Updated: April 28, 2015

In Nepal, people are dying, buildings are crumbling, and whole villages are entombed by rock falls after a massive earthquake hit the Himalayan nation. Despite needing all the help it can get, the Nepalese government has decided to snub an offer of aid from Taiwan—very possibly in the name of politics.

Taiwan Vice Foreign minister Andrew Kao said Monday that Nepal had declined the island nation’s help in search-and-rescue efforts “for the time being,” according to Taiwan broadcaster Central News Agency. Kao said Taiwan will still send an advance medical team, but it is unclear if Nepal’s government will allow it to operate.

Nepal is rejecting Taiwan search and rescue efforts on grounds that the countries aren’t close enough, both literally and diplomatically. There’s a “great distance” between Taiwan and Nepal, and a “lack of direct flights and diplomatic relations,” Central News Agency reports. Nepal will instead rely on its neighbors, China and India, and only notify Taiwan when more help is needed.

Nepal’s aid refusal is odd seeing how the “needs of its people are acute“—tens of thousands have been left homeless since Saturday, and the death toll reached 3,700 on Monday, with over 6,300 injured, according to The Associated Press.

Taiwan has excellent earthquake search and rescue teams, as it proved in Sichuan in 2008 and Haiti in 2011. Also, Taiwan is renowned for its “ability to bring tremendous resources and expertise to the relief effort,” according to Don Rodgers, a political science professor at Austin College, in an email.

Indeed, Taiwan has pledged about $300,000 in aid, and public fundraising campaigns have been started. Several Taiwanese government and charity groups are planning rescue missions to Nepal, Reuters reports. 

The Nepal government has not officially announced its reasons for turning down aid from Taiwan.

Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to a written request for comment.

Taiwanese Response

The Taiwanese are speculating about China’s role in halting its rescue efforts.

In a Taiwan Legislature session, lawmaker Hsiao Bi-khim asked Kao if Beijing had a role to play in Nepal’s rejection, according to Taiwan broadcaster ETtoday.

Taiwan netizens also feel that Nepal’s close relations with the Chinese regime was the real reason for the aid refusal.

“The truth is Nepal is pro-Beijing,” wrote “A6” on PTT, the largest online forum in Taiwan. “It is not a surprise that it has turned Taiwan down.”

“It is because China is building a railway that will pass through Nepal,” wrote “Sinreigensou,” alluding to the proposed 335-mile-long Qinghai-Tibet Railway, which will reportedly tunnel beneath Mount Everest.

The Tragedy of Politics

The Taiwan public and politicians may not be too far from the truth.

Nepal’s government boasts a diplomatic relationship with China stretching to the fifth century on its website, and has said in several press releases over the years that it supports the Chinese regime’s stance that Taiwan and Tibet are “integral” and “inalienable” parts of China.

Taiwan frames the issue differently. It officially adheres to the one-China principle adopted by it and the People’s Republic of China in 1992. According to this principle, both states agree there is one China, but agreed to disagree over which government represents China. 

“Although the government in Nepal did not specifically indicate that it turned down Taiwan’s assistance due to pressure from China, it is difficult to imagine any other reason,” Rodgers wrote. It would be “tragic for the people of Nepal that China’s power play and geopolitical issues take precedence over the needs of the people.”

J. Michael Cole, the editor-in-chief of Thinking Taiwan, a commentary and analysis website, is “not surprised” if politics ruled the day, and feels that it might very well be “an instance of self-censorship, of Nepalese overreacting and placing political interests ahead of their own people.”

But Cole doesn’t put it past China resorting to some mischief given their history for it.

“We must also remember that after the 921 earthquake struck Taiwan in 1999, killing 2,415 people, Beijing ‘ordered’ that all international help heading for Taiwan first pass through China,” wrote Cole in an email. “The silly charade caused considerable delays in the delivery of needed international assistance, and could certainly have cost lives.”