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Why do the Chinese want a train to Sikkim?

August 21, 2014 12:23 IST

China is spending billions of dollars to improve infrastructure in Tibet and other parts of its border with India. Claude Arpi explains why New Delhi can't afford to ignore Beijing's plans.

The Qinghai-Tibet Railway. Photograph: Wikimedia CommonsIndia dreams to catch up with China in infrastructure.

Whether it is highways, bullet trains or airports in remote corners of the Middle Kingdom, China is way ahead compared to India which struggles to develop a decent infrastructure, particularly in the Himalayas.

But the Communist leadership in Beijing is apparently not satisfied. It wants to increase the pace of its own development, especially on its borders with India.

Xinhua announced that Beijing was soon to upgrade the road network in Tibet 'to make travels on The Roof of the World much easier.'

For whom, is the question!

The Chinese transport ministry affirmed that China will expand its road network to 110,000 km by 2020 in the Tibetan Autonomous Region alone.

That is not all, according to Xinhua, China plans to complete a network of railways of 1,300 km by the same year (the end of the 13th Five-Year Plan).

China will also build several new airports in Tibet.

In all, over $13 billion (Rs 79,495 crore) have been invested in transportation in the last 20 years in Tibet.

So, why should India be worried?

The ministry itself acknowledged that the development of transport in Tibet was 'crucial to China's national security... and the lasting prosperity in the autonomous region.'

'National security' in Tibet means the strengthening of the borders with India.

The Global Times recently published a report 'Sky rail to run from Lhasa to south Tibet; further railway expansion to connect Nepal, Bhutan, India by 2020'.

It announced that the railway linking Lhasa and Shigatse (poetically called by China as the 'closest stretch of railway to the sky') will be opened to traffic in August.

The construction of the extension of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, which started in September 2010, will be 254 km long and have 13 stations. Trains will be able to run at a speed of 120 km per hour and will take only two hours from Lhasa to Shigatse, the seat of the Panchen Lama's and Tibet's second largest city.

According to Yang Yulin, deputy director of Tibet's railway office, it is the largest infrastructure project in the region during the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011 to 2015), with an investment of more than $1.7 billion.

Zhu Bin, a manager at a mineral company based in Lhasa, told The People's Daily that 'it will accelerate transportation of the mineral products, which could only be transmitted through highways that often risk being cut off during rainy seasons or see vehicle turnovers.' That is certainly one of the train's objectives

A Tibetan writer based in Lhasa, told the Communist newspaper that the railway will help local Tibetans to 'exchange with the outside world and tourists will be attracted to the area.'

It is obvious that China is not investing billions of dollars for the Tibetans to 'see the outside world.'

The train to Shigatse has three purposes: One, to bring more tourists, Tibet's main source of revenue (15 million will visit Tibet in 2014); two, to take minerals to the mainland to feed the economic machine and three, to 'strengthen' the borders with India by allowing quick movement of troops and armament.

More surprisingly, Yang announced that during the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016 to 2020) period, the construction of a railway connecting Shigatse with Kyirong in northern Nepal and with Yatung, in the Chumbi Valley -- located between Sikkim and Bhutan -- will start.

Kyirong is a logical extension of the line as China has extensively invested in this landport to make it the main link between Tibet and Kathmandu, (and economically invade Nepal), but why Yatung?

The border trade between India and Tibet is minimal.

Despite the great hopes generated in 2006, when Nathu-la was trade opened between Yatung and Gangtok, the border trade has been stagnating (partly due to the restricted list of items allowed to be traded).

Wang Chunhuan, professor at the Tibetan Academy of Social Sciences in Lhasa told The Global Times that the railway network in Tibet will play the role of a continental bridge in South Asia and promote economic and cultural exchanges.

Does it mean that China would like to open the Yatung-Nathu-la-Gangtok route in a big way?

Has Beijing consulted Delhi on this or is it a unilateral decision?

The Global Times quotes Liu Zongyi, a Chinese expert on India at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, saying that 'Indians have lately been working on adding infrastructure in the South Tibet region, in order to strengthen control.'

Southern Tibet is the Chinese name for Arunachal Pradesh!

Liu explains it is a bargaining chip.

If people on the Chinese side of the South Tibet region (Arunachal Pradesh) see better economic development in south-western Tibet (Shigatse and Ngari) they will be tempted to join the People's Republic.

This is, of course, a Chinese dream; it will never happen. But the move towards Yatung is indeed a bargaining chip at another level.

'The growing railway network will increase Chinese activities in this area,' Liu admits, 'balancing Indian moves.'

China is nervous about India raising a 'Mountain Strike Corps', the XVII Corps, with its headquarters at Panagarh in West Bengal, not too far from Sikkim (and Yatung).

When fully operational (by 2018-2019), the Corps, costing some Rs 64,678 crore to Indian tax-payers, will have 90,274 troops.

The Corps will be spread on the 4,057-km Line of Actual Control from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh; it will have two high-altitude infantry divisions (59 Div at Panagarh and 72 Div at Pathankot) with their integral units, two independent infantry brigades, two armoured brigades.

It will also include 30 new infantry battalions and two Para-Special Forces battalions.

Incidentally, the projected railway line to Yatung perhaps explains the inflated size of the Chumbi Valley in newly-published Chinese maps. Huge chunks of Bhutanese territory have been engulfed in the Chumbi Valley.

Also important to India is the railway linking Lhasa to Nyingchi Prefecture, located north of the McMahon Line, which is expected to start in a few months. It is also part of the 13th Five-Year Plan.

The recent heavy traffic of Communist VIPs/VVIPs from Beijing visiting Ngari (Western Tibet) is probably due to Beijing's decision to consolidate its borders; namely the frontiers opposite Ladakh.

Last month, China Military Online reported that General Xu Qiliang, a member of the Politburo and one of the two powerful vice chairmen of the Central Military Commission, inspected the area.

According to an official military Web site, 'Xu Qiliang recently (it is not disclosed when) inspected the troops of the People's Liberation Army and the People's Armed Police Force garrisoning Xinjiang and Tibet.'

'During the inspection, General Xu Qiliang visited the officers and men in frontier areas, and held talks with the leaders of the troop units garrisoning in Hotan (Xinjiang, near the Aksai Chin), Ali (Ngari or Gar) and Lhasa (in the Tibetan Autonomous Region) areas to discuss the development and reform of frontier troop units.'

Xu also met sentries of a frontier defence company at Shenxianwan (just north of the Karakoram Pass and the Depsang Plains): 'The troops were performing their duties at the altitude of 5,380 metres.'

The general went to the barracks of the Khurnak Fort frontier (opposite the Indian troops in Ladakh, north of the Pangong lake) defence company and Banmozhang (near Sirijp on the Pangong lake where many incursions have taken place) 'to inspect a water (speed-boats) squadron and inquire about the soldiers' work, study and life.'

There is no doubt that Xi Jinping will make sure that China is ready in case of a conflict with India. He will also be in a strong bargaining position if Prime Minister Narendra Modi decides one day to discuss the border issue.

Image: The Qinghai-Tibet Railway. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

Claude Arpi