The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The aftermath of Nepal’s earthquake exposes Asia’s geopolitical fault lines

Members of a rescue team from China huddle while planning their rescue operation in Kathmandu. (EPA)

Even as it struggled to dig its people out of piles of rubble, Nepal’s government rejected Taiwan’s offer to send in a search and rescue team.

The United States, meanwhile, sent condolences to victims of Saturday’s earthquake in Nepal and to the much smaller number of people affected in India and Bangladesh – but notably did not mention those who died across the border in China’s Tibetan region.

Even before the dust had settled, geopolitical fault lines, and Chinese taboos, appear to have shaped the response to the quake, which killed more than 4,000 people.

[Nepal's other disaster: Its politics.]

Nepal has been overwhelmed by the scale of the tragedy: This story by Todd Pitman of the Associated Press tells movingly of a 12-year-old girl suffering a slow death under the rubble of her home because rescuers lacked the equipment to dig her out.

But Monday, Taiwan said Nepal rejected its offer to send a 20-member tracking team with sniffer dogs, its media reported.

Anger and frustrations mount in Nepal as survivors of the deadly earthquake wait for help from the government that they feel has been slow to arrive. (Video: Reuters)

Vice Foreign Minister Andrew Kao was reported as saying that Nepal had decided to prioritize help from neighboring countries, citing the long distance and the lack of direct flights and diplomatic relations between the two countries.

But some foreign policy experts drew a more obvious conclusion: Nepal refused the help because it feared offending its powerful friend China.

J. Michael Cole, a Taipei-based senior fellow with the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, said Beijing probably did not mandate the decision to refuse the aid.

“But given the close ties between Kathmandu and China — and the heavy Chinese investment in Nepal in recent years — some Nepalese official(s) probably thought it was incumbent upon them to demonstrate how seriously they took their country's adherence to ‘one China,’ ” he wrote in an e-mail. “I think the dynamics are rather similar to self-censorship.”

Fortunately, after the news provoked something of a backlash on Monday, Taiwan’s Central News Agency reported Tuesday that a team of 37 search and rescue (SAR) workers from an aid organization and the Red Cross in Taiwan was on its way to Nepal, via Hong Kong.

Ironically, Taiwan provided assistance and sent donations after an earthquake struck China’s Sichuan province in 2008. A Taiwanese C-130 also performed a much longer round-trip in 2011 when it sent humanitarian aid to quake-hit Haiti.

But Cole also noted two other precedents: In 1999, Beijing “requested” that aid to Taiwan for its devastating earthquake pass through China and even went so far as to deny a Russian plane carrying humanitarian assistance permission to enter its airspace.

More than a decade later, Japan initially failed to mention Taiwan on a list of donor countries it thanked after its 2011 earthquake, even though it was the leading global donor.

“SAR and humanitarian assistance is a relatively uncontroversial area where Taiwan can do a lot of good regionally, and it's unfortunate that geopolitics would prevent it from doing so,” Cole said. “It has lots to offer, and can learn a few things in the process that can then be applied back in Taiwan to save lives. Nothing beats experience.”

Some of the thousands of people killed in Nepal’s devastating earthquake are laid to rest, as rescuers find some people still alive under the rubble. (Video: Reuters)

On Monday, 21 Taiwanese were still unaccounted for within Nepal, media in Taipei reported, while the government pledged to send $300,000 in financial aid.

Geopolitics also appeared to intrude Tuesday when Nepal's government asked an Indian rescue team  not to undertake any activities that would involve flying over Rasuwa district, which borders Tibet, or over Chinese airspace, according to a report in the Annapurna Post.

The newspaper said the Chinese government had expressed concerns about the Indian army's growing  relief activities in districts that border China.

India and China are increasingly vying for influence in Kathmandu, and some commentators have suggested that competition between Nepal's giant neighbors has encouraged them to provide more assistance than they might have otherwise. But their rivalry appears to have drawbacks, too, creating a potential headache for Nepalis trying to coordinate the relief response.

In the United States, a stranger tale unfolded after the earthquake, as the administration demonstrated a puzzling blind spot.

On Monday, Politico reported, White House press secretary Josh Earnest “made a subtle omission” when he sent condolences to the families of those who died, not only in Nepal but also in India and Bangladesh.

As Politico noted, about 20 deaths were being reported in Tibet on Monday, while only two had been recorded in Bangladesh.

Was Earnest ignorant of that fact? Was it a slip of the tongue — or was he trying to steer clear of the diplomatic tightrope that President Obama has long walked over Tibet?

Did the deaths, in fact, occur within China, its Tibetan Autonomous Region, or in a place we can simply call Tibet?

Tibet and Taiwan are two of the three T’s in China that foreign visitors are not encouraged to broach. (The other, incidentally, is Tiananmen, the Beijing square where a pro-democracy protest was violently crushed in 1989.)

Both may have become taboos for some when talking about Nepal’s earthquake, too.

Rubble and agony in Nepal

SERTUNG, DHADING DISTRICT, NEPAL, MAY 2, 2015: Beroag Tamang, 55, removes stones from the roof of his house which was destroyed from the earthquake that struck Nepal Saturday, in the village area of Sertung, located northwest of Kathmandu in Dhading District, Nepal on May 2, 2015. Tamang was in Kathmandu when the earthquake struck; he reunited with his family in his village on May 1. He said that his family was too afraid to move back into their house because of the loose stones and structural instability; he said it will take 3-4 months to repair their home, and they will live in the tent until then. Dhading District was one of the most affected areas in Nepal with an estimated death toll of 995 deaths and thousands of injured casualties. Sertung is a collection of small villages located remotely near the border of China; inaccessible by vehicles and roads, it took medical teams 6 days after the earthquake to reach the area and administer aid to survivors. The nearest area to Sertung which has medical and food supplies is called Neelkantha Municipality, and is a two day walk on foot through the mountains and steep terrian. (Erin Trieb for The Washington Post)

Liu Liu in Beijing and Anup Kaphle in Washington contributed to this report.

Read more:

Nepalis grieve the loss of their sacred landmarks

This pictureque village in Nepal is now flattened

Before and after: Kathmandu’s world heritage sites

Nepal’s other disaster: Its politics