Nepal as a Buffer State: Historical and Geostrategic Insights

Nepal: Model of Buffer State & Diplomatic Triumph

In the ever-shifting landscape of international relations, Nepal historically stands out as a perfect model of a buffer state, showing excellent diplomacy and strategic skills. 

A buffer state is a country strategically positioned between two rival or potentially hostile nations. It serves as a barrier to prevent conflicts and maintain a balance of power, ensuring peace, security, and stability in the region. This political doctrine emerged in the 17th century, particularly among European imperialist powers like the British, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. 

Nepal, with its naturally fortified borders in the Himalayas, served as a strategic buffer between British India and China during the colonial era. 

"Nepal's location between two superpowers like India and China highlights the importance of the buffer state (political philosophy) in the context of geopolitical strategy."

Image Credit:, Map of Nepal as a Buffer State

Nepal's success as a buffer state is attributed to its diplomatic finesse in balancing relations with its neighboring giants, India and China, while safeguarding its sovereignty. Nepal employs a friendly strategy, taking advantage of its rugged terrain, which has historically deterred external control. This article explores the historical and geopolitical complexities of Nepal's role as a buffer state.

💻Table of Contents:

The Historical Journey of Nepal: From Fragmentation to Unification

Nepal's history spans thousands of years, marked by evidence of early civilizations and diverse cultures. In ancient times, the region was inhabited by various ethnic groups and ruled by numerous small kingdoms and principalities, leading to unclear boundaries.

Throughout centuries of Muslim rule in India, Nepal remained a sovereign entity, largely unaffected by the political shifts in the Indian subcontinent. Despite the dominance of Muslim dynasties and empires such as the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire, Nepal's geographical isolation and rugged terrain shielded it from external influence.

However, in the 18th century, King Prithvi Narayan Shah initiated the unification process that shaped modern Nepal's administrative structure. Employing a combination of diplomacy and military conquests, he successfully expanded his kingdom's territory and unified much of present-day Nepal. His most significant achievement came in 1768 when he captured the Kathmandu Valley and officially proclaimed the establishment of the Kingdom of Nepal.

The establishment of the Shah dynasty, also known as the Shahs of Gorkha, further solidified Nepal's unity. Under King Prithvi Narayan Shah's leadership, the Shah dynasty invaded the Kathmandu Valley, previously the capital of the Malla confederacy. Despite initial resistance, the Gorkhali army's victory led to the shift of the kingdom's capital from Gorkha to Kathmandu. 

This marked the beginning of a new era for Nepal, as it transitioned from fragmentation to unification under the Shah dynasty's rule. The Shah dynasty ruled unified Nepal from 1769 to 2008, shaping the nation's history and identity. In 2006, a Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed, promising democracy and peace. On April 10, 2008, a Constituent Assembly election took place. Then, on May 28, 2008, Nepal became a Federal Democratic Republic, abolishing the 240 year-old monarchy.

King Prithvi Narayan Shah: Architect of Modern Nepal
Image Credit: picryle & wallpaperflare, Prithvi Narayan Shah

Nepal's Challenges from Qing Dynasty: And a Tale of Diplomatic Triumph

The Sino-Nepalese War, also known as the pacification of Gorkha, was fought between Nepal and Tibet from 1788 to 1792. Initially, Nepal achieved victory against Tibet in 1789. However, with the intervention of the Qing Empire, the conflict ended with a Qing victory against Nepal in 1792. The war concluded with the signing of the Treaty of Betrawati, in which Nepal agreed to maintain diplomacy and pay tribute to the Qing Empire.

The war was initially sparked by a trade dispute over the quality of Nepalese coins used in Tibet. It escalated when Nepalese forces successfully subdued the Tibetans, leading to the intervention of the Chinese imperial army.

Since the time of the Malla kings (1640-1791), Tibet had been using Nepalese silver coins. However, a crisis emerged when Prithvi Narayan Shah of the Gorkha Kingdom initiated an economic blockade on the Kathmandu Valley, leading to the minting of low-quality coins by Jaya Prakash Malla of Kathmandu. Despite Prithvi Narayan Shah's efforts to restore the purity of Nepalese coins, tensions between Nepal and Tibet persisted.

In 1789, Bahadur Shah, son of Prithvi Narayan Shah, sent Gorkha troops to attack Tibet. Despite initial Nepalese success, the involvement of the Chinese imperial army transformed the conflict into a full-scale war between Nepal and China. After peace talks, Nepal agreed to withdraw its forces from occupied territories in return for tribute from Tibet.

Tensions resurfaced when Tibet refused to pay tribute to Nepal, leading to another invasion in 1791. The conflict escalated into a Nepal-China war, with the Qing Empire sending a large army to defend Tibet. Despite facing overwhelming odds, Nepal's military resistance, coupled with diplomatic negotiations, eventually led to a peace treaty in 1792.

The treaty signed in Betrawati on October 2, 1792 was a big humiliation for Nepal that stipulated (in Article 1) that China should henceforth be considered as father to both Nepal and Tibet. Nepal accepted Chinese suzerainty and agreed to pay tribute every five years. In return, China promised to mediate in disputes between Nepal and Tibet and assist Nepal in defending against external aggression.

While Tibet came under greater Chinese control after the war, Nepal successfully retained its autonomy. However, the weakening of the Qing dynasty in the 19th century led to the disregard of the treaty. Finally, Nepal's successful negotiation with the powerful Qing Empire represents its remarkable diplomatic prowess as a buffer state in the region, allowing it to navigate complex geopolitical issues.

Gurkhas: From Foes to Allies - The Legacy of the Anglo-Nepalese War

The Anglo-Nepalese War, also known as the Gorkha War, took place from November 1, 1814, to March 4, 1816. It was a conflict between the Gorkhali army of the Kingdom of Nepal and the British forces representing the East India Company. The war concluded with the signing of the Sugauli Treaty in 1816. As per the treaty, Nepal surrendered control over certain territories to the East India Company, establishing the boundary line of Nepal. Therefore, the British forces are considered the winners of the war.

As per the terms of the treaty, Nepal ceded territories including present-day all of Sikkim (including Darjeeling), the territories of Kumaon and Garhwal, and the Western Terai region,  thereby ending the conflict.  According to the Greater Nepal advocates, it resulted in Nepal losing around 176,000 square kilometers of territory, leaving it with its current borders and a total area of 147,516 square kilometers.

The Treaty of Sugauli in 1816 marked a significant diplomatic achievement for Nepal. Following the Anglo-Nepalese War, the Gurkhas, who had previously fought against the British, became valuable allies to the East India Company. Gurkha battalions participated in various conflicts, including the Sikh Wars and the suppression of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857-8. By 1914, Gurkhas comprised about one-sixth of the British Indian Army. They were the first non-British soldiers to have the honor of defending Buckingham Palace, the London residence of the British royal family. 

Historical Significance of the Nepal-Britain Treaty:

The Nepal-Britain Treaty of Friendship of 1923 holds immense historical significance for Nepal, despite being replaced by separate treaties with independent India and the United Kingdom in 1950. Here are the key reasons why the 1923 Treaty remains important:

Recognition of Sovereignty and Independence: Nepal became an independent and sovereign state on December 21, 1923, when it was formally recognized by Great Britain. This recognition came through the Nepal-Britain Treaty of Friendship, marking the first formal acknowledgment of Nepal's sovereignty and independence by the United Kingdom.

Admission to the International Community: Despite not being a member of the League of Nations, the registration of the 1923 Treaty with the League in 1925 signified Nepal's indirect admission to the community of independent nations. This facilitated Nepal's engagement with other countries, leading to the establishment of diplomatic relations with the United States and the opening of the first South Asian embassy in London.

Membership in the United Nations: The 1923 Treaty played a crucial role in Nepal obtaining membership in the United Nations in 1955. It served as evidence of Nepal's sovereignty and independence during British rule in India, thus ensuring Nepal's status as a fully sovereign nation.

End of Chinese Suzerainty Claim: The Treaty officially denied China any claim of suzerainty over Nepal, thereby ending any potential suzerain claim by China as per the Treaty of Betrawati (1792).

Preservation of Independence: The Treaty helped Nepal retain its independent sovereign status after the independence of India in 1947. It also prevented Nepal's annexation by India during the creation of the Union of India from the various princely states.

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Diplomatic Triumph: The Legacy of the 1923 Treaty

The 1950 treaties of peace and friendship between Nepal and India, and Nepal and the UK, drew heavily on the 1923 Treaty, serving as a model for these subsequent agreements. The conclusion of the Treaty represented a masterful display of diplomacy by the Rana regime in Nepal. 

Prime Minister Chandra Shumsher Jang Bahadur Rana skillfully cultivated Nepal's relations with the British, ensuring Nepal's recognition as a fully sovereign state. The 1923 Treaty was concluded amidst Britain's imperial power. It marked the culmination of Nepal's efforts to secure recognition as a sovereign nation and navigate the complexities of South Asian geopolitics.

Partnership with Britain: The Treaty established a partnership between Nepal and Britain, which continues to this day. It demonstrated Britain's decision to partner with and influence Nepal, rather than colonize it, laying the foundation for more than 200 years of diplomatic relations.

The diplomatic correspondence leading to the 1923 Treaty demonstrates the mutual respect and sophisticated conduct of diplomatic relations between Nepal and Britain. The Treaty's legacy continues to inspire both countries and serves as a significant historical chapter in their relations.

Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship: Overview and Criticism

The Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship, signed between the Kingdom of Nepal and the Republic of India on July 31, 1950, aimed to establish a close strategic relationship between the two nations. The treaty allowed for the free movement of people and goods and collaboration on matters of defense and foreign policy. However, it has faced criticism in Nepal for being unequal and seen as a breach of sovereignty. Critics argue that it was signed by undemocratic rulers and can be scrapped with one year's notice.

The treaty initially enjoyed support but became increasingly unpopular in Nepal, leading to resentment over what was perceived as an encroachment of sovereignty and undue Indian influence. After the advent of democracy in Nepal, relations with India deteriorated, and the treaty's provisions were ignored. Nepal has lobbied for its renegotiation since the 1970s, proposing itself as a Zone of Peace between India and China.

In 2008, the leader of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) announced plans to scrap the treaty and negotiate a new one with India, but this was not pursued. In 2014, both countries agreed to review and adjust the treaty. In January 2021, Nepal's Foreign Minister, Pradeep Kumar Gyawali, reiterated Nepal's desire to revise the treaty to reflect new realities and changes.

Breathtaking view of Nepal's majestic mountains
Image Credit:, Nepal's Majestic Mountains

Geopolitical Balancing Act: Navigating Between India, China, and the United States

Nepal's geopolitical position between India and China has historically shaped its foreign policy, characterized by a delicate balancing act. Recent developments, including the United States' renewed interest in South Asia, have added complexity to Nepal's strategic landscape.

China perceives growing U.S. involvement in Nepal, particularly through initiatives like the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), as a challenge to its regional dominance. The US initiative aims to support Nepal's agriculture, private sector growth, and natural resources management, including electricity transmission lines. It also creates opportunities for US companies. However, concerns arise when comparing it to China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) regarding transparency and long-term impacts.

India and the United States have aligned their interests in Nepal, particularly concerning the Tibet issue, which concerns China. Both countries have been vocal about human rights violations in Tibet, causing discomfort in Beijing. China's aggressive military activities in Tibet have also heightened tensions.

Despite concerns from China, high-level U.S. visits to Nepal have continued, focusing on areas such as democratic progress, economic development, and security cooperation. India has largely remained supportive of U.S. diplomatic efforts in Nepal, fostering a "India+1" approach to address common challenges posed by China.

Besides, Nepal, as a landlocked country caught between India and China's rivalry, chose not to join the Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS). Despite the Nepal Army's participation in IPS meetings, Nepal's political leaders jointly decided against joining. Disagreements among key policymakers have caused confusion and uncertainty in Nepal's foreign policy. However, Nepal remains open to participating in the State Partnership Program under the Indo-Pacific Strategy.


Nepal's historical and contemporary geopolitical position as a buffer state between India and China has played a crucial role in shaping its foreign policy and diplomatic strategies. Throughout history, Nepal has demonstrated diplomatic finesse and strategic acumen, navigating the complex relationships with its powerful neighbors to safeguard its sovereignty and maintain peace and stability in the region.

From its historical role as a buffer between British India and China to its contemporary challenges balancing the interests of India, China, and the United States, Nepal's geopolitical balancing act reflects its commitment to maintaining its independence and territorial integrity. Nepal's experience offers valuable insights into the complexities of geopolitical dynamics and the challenges faced by small states in maintaining their independence and strategic autonomy in a multipolar world.