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International relations and the Himalaya: Connecting Ecologies, Cultures and Geopolitics

Authors: Alexander E. Davis, Ruth Gamble, Gerald Roche & Lauren Gawne

Affiliation: University of Western Australia & La Trobe University

Organization/Publisher: Australian Journal of International Affairs

Date/Place: June 30, 2020/Australia

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Number of Pages: 21



Keywords: Himalaya, India, Pakistan, China, Conflict




This article discusses how cultural, political, and environmental changes intersect in the Himalaya region. Using an International Relations approach, the authors argue that it is not international border disputes that pose the greatest threat to the region, but rather the impact of state building and militarization on the region’s ecology, culture, and languages. For example, the competition between China and India to build dams has left the region vulnerable to water resource scarcity. While many countries have stopped building dams following the release of the condemnatory World Commission on Dams report, India, Pakistan, China, Nepal, and Bhutan have continued to build them. In fact, India’s largest single-foreign aid project is a dam in Bhutan, and China’s Belt and Road Initiative has funded dams in Nepal.


The Himalaya region is home to three biodiversity hotspots and a diverse mix of ethnic groups, many of whom speak endangered languages. The ice deposits in the Himalaya feed most of Asia’s major rivers. In recent years, India and China have been building large infrastructure projects in the region, leading to increased militarization and a surge in tourism. However, these threats are exacerbated by climate change, which is occurring at twice the global average in the Himalaya, causing landslides, floods, and droughts. International Relations theories have not adequately addressed the complexities of this region, as they tend to focus solely on the potential for violent conflict between state actors like India, Pakistan, and China. The authors of this article argue that it is necessary to move beyond the narrow focus on states and security and the Delhi-Beijing-Islamabad-centered narrative, and instead examine the numerous interconnected factors that shape the region’s geopolitics, cultures, languages, and ecologies. They suggest that this can be achieved by incorporating more interdisciplinary research and focusing on the relationship between the structures of political authority and the region’s environment.


Over the past few decades, tensions between states have resulted in heavy militarization in the Himalaya region, as well as an increase in developmental projects. Troops numbering in the hundreds of thousands have been deployed across the mountains in an effort to strengthen territorial control. However, this military presence is exacerbating the effects of climate change, such as melting ice and snow, avalanches, and landslides due to increased rainfall. The militarization of the Himalaya is an important topic for International Relations scholarship, as it highlights the role of great power politics in the region, where India, China, and their allies sometimes come into conflict and ultimately compromise through ceasefire agreements. However, the securitization of the Himalaya has often overshadowed the importance of the physical environment and the agency of its diverse inhabitants in IR scholarship. A more comprehensive analysis of the region must consider these factors in addition to state-to-state conflicts and state security rhetoric.


In addition to analyzing the ecological balance in the Himalaya region, it is also important to examine the transformation of the region’s sociocultural fabric. Developmental projects and the promotion of national languages such as English, Putonghua (Modern Standard Chinese), and increasingly Hindi, have contributed to the suppression of regional languages. For example, Tibetans have protested the removal of Tibetan language from schools, and in India, the promotion of Hindi as a unifying language and a key component of Hindutva has sparked backlash and protests from speakers of other languages. In India’s Arunachal Pradesh, which is home to 30 different languages, English is the official literary language, while Hindi has become the lingua franca for the region’s linguistically diverse population. In Himalayan Pakistan, the Muslim Balti people have started a movement to write their language in Tibetan script as a way to assert their unique ethnic identity in the disputed Kashmir region. The transformation of languages in the Himalaya is closely connected to shifts in culture, and the authors argue that the main issue in Himalayan geopolitics is the slow erasure of culture and the destruction of the environment, which is facilitated by the facade of technological and infrastructure developments in the mountains that allow India and China to impose their influence in the borderlands. 


All of these issues are interconnected and cannot be divorced from the geopolitics of the Himalaya region. The discipline of International Relations needs to engage in new interdisciplinary research to go beyond the surface-level analysis and examine the other angles of this geopolitical conflict in the Himalaya. Issues such as language erasure and ecological imbalance require international recognition, as it is not only state interests that matter, but also the environment and biodiversity.

By: Ruby Clayton, CIGA Research Associate



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