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Delhi sweats as China inches toward Nepal

October 18, 2010

Sudha Ramachandran
Asia Times
October 16, 2010

BANGALORE - China's construction of a rail link
between Lhasa and Xigaze (Shigatse) in the Tibet
Autonomous Region will bring its rail network
closer to its Nepal border and to India. The rail
link has potential to boost Sino-Nepal trade and
tourism; it is also expected to enhance China's
already substantial influence in Nepal and bring
the Chinese rail system closer too to the
contested Sino-Indian boundary. A worried India
is looking on as the Chinese railway steams southwards.

Construction now underway of the US$1.9 billion,
253-kilometer rail line between Lhasa, Tibet's
capital, and the region's second-largest city,
Xigaze, will, according to the official Xinhua
news agency, be completed in four years. It is an
extension of a line between Golmud in Qinghai
province and Lhasa, inaugurated in 2006.

Xigaze is the capital of prefecture of the same
name, Tibet's largest prefecture and one that
shares boundaries with India, Nepal and Bhutan.
Xigaze city is also the home of the Panchen Lama,
the second most important spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism.

The Golmud-Lhasa line has been hailed as a
technological marvel as it cuts through some of
the world's most difficult terrain; over 80% of
the route lies at an altitude of 4,000 meters
above sea level and large stretches run through
permafrost conditions and part traverses an earthquake-prone area.

Construction of the Lhasa-Xigaze link is expected to be no less challenging.

It too will snake across terrain at an altitude of 3,500-4,000 meters.

Nearly half the route will burrow through
mountains - Mount Everest rises from Xigaze
prefecture - or run across bridges. While
construction across unstable permafrost soil
confronted engineers building the Golmud-Lhasa
line, the new route provides geothermal fields
with hot springs to set them thinking.

The Golmud-Lhasa railway came under sharp
criticism from environmentalists, who argued that
it would have disastrous consequences for the
region's ecosystem. Human rights organizations
and Tibetan activists said the train link into
Tibet was aimed at Chinese consolidation of
control over Tibet and would unleash a new wave
of Han Chinese migration into the region.

Many of these concerns and criticisms will apply
to the Lhasa-Xigaze.An added concern for India is
the rail's steady approach towards Nepal, a
country it regards as lying in its sphere of influence, and its own borders.

It is evident that the Chinese rail system will
not terminate at Xigaze. In 2008, for instance,
Chinese and Nepalese officials announced plans
for extension of the rail beyond Xigaze up to
Khasa, a small market town on the Sino-Nepal
border - and it might not stop even there. Cheng
Xia Ling, the Chinese ambassador to Nepal, was
quoted in 2008 by Nepal Weekly as saying:

"We are even planning to link it to Kathmandu in not too distant future."

Landlocked Nepal has been eyeing the southward
advance of the Chinese rail system with
anticipation. It will bring it more tourists from
China and Chinese trains loaded with goods will
reduce the Himalayan country's long-standing
dependence on Indian imports. To Nepal, the
Chinese rail link promises opportunity.

For India, the southward advance of China's rail
system is fraught with implications for its
security and influence. Nepal has played a
traditional role as buffer between India and
China. New Delhi has wielded considerable
influence in Nepal for decades, half of Nepal's
trade is with India and its currency is linked to the Indian rupee.

India's influence has been on the decline in
recent years, especially with Nepali Maoists
entering Nepal's political mainstream. Indian
officials believe that during their brief stint
in power, the Maoists built strong ties with the
Chinese government. Anti-India sentiment in Nepal
is high, with many people and politicians blaming
"Delhi's meddling" for an ongoing political impasse.

Indian officials fear that the arrival of trains
bearing Chinese people and goods will further
undermine their country's already weakening hold in Nepal.

Delhi also has worries over other proposed rail
links that might be constructed up to the
Sino-Indian boundary at Sikkim and Arunachal
Pradesh. China is contemplating a rail link from
Xigaze to Yatung, a trading center a
few kilometers from Nathu La, a mountain pass
that connects Tibet with Sikkim. Another rail
line will run eastwards from Lhasa to Nyingchi near Arunachal.

This southward expansion of China's rail lines is
of concern to several Indian security analysts.
Much of the Sino-Indian boundary is disputed and
the two countries fought a war over it in 1962,
which India lost. Incursions by both sides,
especially along the eastern sector, are frequent
given the fuzziness of the boundary.

It was believed that the Sino-Indian boundary at
Sikkim was more or less settled, especially with
China implicitly recognizing Indian claims over
Sikkim through a 2003 agreement that provides for
Sino-Indian border trade via Nathu La. However,
Chinese incursions into the Finger Point area in
Sikkim in the summer of 2008 and its statements
at that time indicated that the boundary at
Sikkim was far from settled in China's view.

As for the boundary in the eastern sector, China
continues to lay claim to around 90,000 square
kilometers of territory that roughly approximates
Arunachal. It has stepped up its rhetoric,
especially with regard to its claims over Tawang.

It is in the context of these contested claims
over the boundary that the extension of rail lines towards India is being seen.

Although China's Minister of Railways Liu Zhijun
has described the extension of the Qinghai-Lhasa
line as a key project in China's long-and
medium-term railway network expansion, aimed at
speeding up Tibet's social and economic
development, Indian analysts are warning that it has strategic implications.

In an article in Japan Times, Brahma Chellaney, author of Asian Juggernaut:

The Rise of China, India and Japan, wrote that
the rail link to Tibet "has now started being
used to supply 'combat readiness materials for
the air force' there." Regarding the proposed
rail extension to India's borders in the east, he
told the Times of India that it "will strengthen
China's rapid military deployment capability in
the eastern (Arunachal) sector." China would be
in a position to rapidly move its armed forces
and strike at India whenever it wanted to, he said.

Road and railway building has been a key element
of China's grand strategy in the Himalayan region
for decades. Building motorways into Tibet began
as early as 1950. As the People's Liberation Army
prepared to annex Tibet, Mao Zedong advised it to
"advance while building roads." Roads linking
Xinjiang, Qinghai, Sichuan and Yunnan to Tibet
were constructed at great human cost, yet pursued
with much determination because they facilitated
the transport of troops to Tibet - which enabled
the quelling of unrest there. They also
helped China's economic development of Tibet.

In contrast, India's infrastructure development
in the Himalayan region has been lethargic. Its
road and rail network near its boundary with
China is abysmal. For instance, there is just one
single-lane road connecting Sikkim's capital
Gangtok to Nathu La and one landslide-prone road
linking Sikkim to the rest of India. Sikkim's
road density is 28.45 kilometers per 100 square
kilometers against the national average of 84 kilometers.

Arunachal Pradesh is even worse off, with a road
density of just 18.65 kilometers per 100 square
kilometers. India might have the world's largest
rail network but there are no trains running into Sikkim or Arunachal.

This means that when trainloads of Chinese goods
begin arriving at Nathu La around a decade from
now, mere truckloads of Indian goods will be trickling in.

Underlying India's poor transport infrastructure
in its border regions is a perception that roads
and railways there are not in India's interest,
as they would enhance China's access to India.
Such transport links are not seen as providing Indian access to China.

Fear, rather than ambition, thus dictated India's
strategy to the Himalayan region.

But with China flattening the Himalayan barrier
to South Asia with its ambitious road and railway
building in the region, India has been forced to respond.

Slowly it is acting to build roads and railways
in its states bordering China. It has plans to
build rail infrastructure into Nepal as well.
Five rail links between the two countries are
being planned. Most are just a few kilometers
long, and do not run through the kind of rugged
terrain that the Chinese in the Himalayas have to
contend with. However, Indian engineers are run
into a far more formidable barrier in executing the projects -
official lethargy and negative mindsets.

Unless India looks at its Himalayan
infrastructure building as an opportunity rather
than with trepidation, it will not be able to
gain benefits of its own from China's leveling of the Himalayas.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.
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