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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

The end of Shangrila

January 5, 2011

January 02, 2011 12:43:08 AM

Claude Arpi, Daily Pioneer

A new highway being built in southern Tibet, close to MacMahon Line, has
ominous implications for India’s national security

As the year comes to a close, one could ask: What was the most
depressing news during 2010? There were so many contenders for this
description — from the shoddy preparations for the Commonwealth Games
and the several financial irregularities surrounding the event to the
different ‘G’ scams; the increasing criminalisation of politics to the
renewed terrorist and Maoist threats. There is, indeed, no dearth of
choice.

However, there is something which has passed largely unnoticed and which
is bad news for India: It is the new road to Metok, north of Arunachal
Pradesh. It has worrisome implications for the country. As China’s
Premier Wen Jiabao arrived in India for purportedly important talks with
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, CCTV of China showed several videos of a
new tunnel (and soon a road) reaching Metok (or Motuo as the Chinese
pronounce the word), the most remote area in southern Tibet. Metok is
located a few kilometres north of the McMahon Line which separates India
from China.

Though ignored by media, this event is bound to have incalculable
consequences for the border defences as well as the future flow of
Brahmaputra. According to the CCTV report, “For the people of Motuo
County in Tibet, the 4,700 metre-high Galongla mountain is a formidable
barrier to enter or leave. And it’s a massive challenge for the
construction workers tunneling from both ends to create a passageway.”

Chen, a Chinese construction worker, told CCTV: “When the tunnel breaks
through, we are going to have tears, laughter and bear hugs to express
our setbacks and solidarity.” Bu Qiong, the only Tibetan armed police
soldier on the site, said, “The Motuo is an isolated island on the
plateau and is the only county in China with no vehicle access. The
people in Motuo desire lots of goods, and they have to carry them by
back from outside, walking. We hope that we get this tunnel finished as
fast as we can, so the people of Motuo can leave easily and outsiders
can enter the county to enjoy the beautiful scenery.”

Perhaps it is true that Metok was the last county with no highway link
in China. But who can believe that all these efforts are only for the
welfare and benefit of a population of 11,000 people?

Located in the south-eastern part of Tibet, the 117-km Metok Highway
will link the Indian border to National Highway 318 which, starting from
Shanghai, runs across the provinces of Zhejiang, Anhui, Hubei, Chongqing
(municipality) and Sichuan before entering eastern Tibet through Litang,
Batang, Markan and Bomi, before continuing unto Lhasa and ending at the
Nepal border (Zhangmu).

CCTV gave more details on the road that is being built: “Once completed,
(the tunnel) will be over 3.3 km long, cutting 24 km from the original
rugged mountain road. Meanwhile, 29 bridges and 227 culverts will be
constructed. The highway negotiates the complicated terrain of the Grand
Yalunzangpo (Brahmaputra) gorge. The drop between the highest and the
lowest point is over 3,100 metres. (Now) people have to cross more than
six rivers before approaching Motuo County.”

The new road, costing $150 million, will join the Roof of the World’s
strategic axis at Bomi by 2012. Xinhua has affirmed that the tunnel
“will shorten the time dramatically as the journey through the tunnel
will take just half-an-hour”, adding that “90 km of highway between the
end of the tunnel and Metok County, in Nyingchi Prefecture, is yet to be
built”. Nyingchi town, which is located some 200 km from Bomi, is
already served by one of the largest airports in Tibet. It can annually
cater for lakhs of tourists attracted by the gorges of Brahmaputra.

The Chinese media has, however, forgotten important ‘details’ while
reporting the opening of the tunnel. The place is so remote that for
centuries no one knew if the mighty Brahmaputra was flowing towards
South-East Asia like Mekong or Irrawaddy to Burma… or to India? During
the 19th century, the British thought that the best way to ‘conquer’ the
sub-continent was to map it; they were, however, left with this enigma.
The Great Trigonometrical Survey, the ancestor of the Survey of India
often sent ‘locals’ (they called them ‘pundits’) for surveying these
remote Himalayan areas. One of these ‘pundits’ was Kintup, alias KP, a
native of Sikkim. He travelled to Tibet to chart the course of Yarlung
Tsangpo.

KP could not reach Metok, but tried to throw marked logs down the stream
of Tsangpo and see if they would reach India. Unfortunately, nobody got
his message and when he returned to Assam in 1884 (after four years on
the mountain tracks), Yarlung Tsangpo and Brahmaputra were still two
different rivers. It is only several years later that the Survey found
some of the logs in Bengal and that KP became famous.

For Tibetans, it is one of the most pristine regions of their country.
They consider the area around the ‘Great Bend’ of Brahmaputra as the
home of Goddess Dorjee Pagmo, Tibet’s ‘Protecting Deity’. Many believe
that Pemakoe is the sacred realm often referred to in their scriptures:
the last hidden Shangrila. It is also said that the great Indian tantric
master, Padmasambhava, visited the place during the eighth century and
tamed the local spirits to conceal scriptures for future generations.

The region unlike other parts of Tibet receives plenty of rain and
within the Great Bend area one finds the rarest species of flora and
fauna. Though not yet fully documented, the Chinese authorities admit
that the region is home for more than 60 per cent of the biological
resources of Tibet.

But the particularly bad news for India is that the engineers who have
worked for the northward diversion of the waters of Yarlung Tsangpo
across hundreds of kilometres of mountainous regions to China’s
north-western provinces of Xinjiang and Gansu, have planned the main
hydropower plant in Metok area. The gorges of Brahmaputra can provide
one of the greatest hydropower potentials available in the world. For
South Asia and more particularly for India, the enormity of the scheme
and its closeness to the Indian border cannot be ignored. It will of
course be a political decision, but the new road makes it now
practically conceivable. The road will not only trigger the
disappearance of one of the last sacred places of this planet, but will
also have strategic and military consequences for India.

Contrary to India, China thinks in terms of the ‘dual use’ for its
infrastructure. Mr Xi Jinping, the future party boss (he takes over in
2012) is a great supporter of Chairman Mao Tse-tung’s theory of “the
synthesis between the requirements of peacetime and war.” For Mao,
civilian sectors had always a major role to play in military
preparedness. For example, infrastructure projects such as airports and
railways should be designed to also serve war-time needs.

Some years ago, when Mr Xi Jinping was party secretary of Zhejiang
province, he had said, “We must implement (Mao’s) strategic concept of
the ‘unity between soldiers and civilians’ and both the Army and
regional civilian authorities should assiduously pool our resources in
the preparation for military struggle against China’s enemies.” The new
road will clearly serve more purposes than is being claimed.
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