Like a homing pigeon, China is pressing ahead with the implementation of its plans for railway link-ups with Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nepal. It is only a question of time before Chinese railway planners and strategic thinkers come out with a plan for a railway link-up with Bangladesh via Myanmar. The initiative for these link-ups came not from China, but from these countries. Once their interest in a railway link-up with China became evident, Beijing pounced on the opportunity and seriously took up a feasibility study and came up with ideas regarding the implementation if the projects were found feasible.
2. It has projected these projects as dictated by purely economic requirements and not by strategic or geopolitical intentions. Though these projects, when finally implemented, would have an enormous military significance, the military aspect is played down and their economic benefits are highlighted. A study of the evolution of the ideas for railway link-ups across India’s periphery shows that while China does not seek to create for itself a capability for the strategic strangulation of India, it never misses an opportunity to develop such a capability if it presents itself.
3. I have already written separately about the feasibility studies that have been initiated regarding railway link-ups with Pakistan and Afghanistan. This article is about a possible railway link-up between Tibet and Nepal. On January 18, 2008, less than two years after China commissioned the railway line to Lhasa, its online Tibet news service (en.tibet.cn) quietly announced that the Lhasa-Xigaze Section of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway's extension line “is expected to start construction this year”. The next day, the Government and party-controlled Xinhua news agency quoted the then Chairman Qiangba Puncog of the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region as stating that it would be one of the region’s ten key construction projects involving an investment of 28 billion yuan ($3.7 billion). The Xinhua further quoted him as saying as follows: “"Experts are still working on the designs and environmental assessments of the extension line and government officials have started calculating compensations to those who will lose their land and properties to the railway." It added that the 254-km Lhasa-- Xigaze will be the first feeder line for the Qinghai-Tibet Railway and would cost 11 billion yuan and be completed in 2010. As pointed out by the “Tibetan Review” of January 23,2008,Xigaze is located 280 km southwest of Lhasa and borders Nepal, Bhutan and India.
4.Mr.Cheng Xia Ling, the Chinese Ambassador to Nepal, said in an interview the same day: "The China -Tibet railway link will not end in Lhasa, as we have plans to expand it up to the Nepalese border." He added that he was aware of the difficulty of supplying oil to Nepal from China. “It is not an easy task to supply petrol from China as we need to cross thousands of kilometres of distance and Tibet having border with Nepal is at an altitude of 4,000 metres." In an interview to “Nepal Weekly”, he said : "We are even planning to link it to Kathmandu in not too distant future." The “ China Daily” said on January 23, 2008,that a Sichuan-Tibet Railway would be built to create a network linking Sichuan's western passageway with Tibet, Qinghai province and Chinese-controlled Xinjiang. It said that it would be part of China’s six new railway projects costing 140 billion yuan ($19.3 billion) to be included in the national railway network plan. An agreement for this purpose was signed on January 10,2008,by Sichuan’s party secretary Mr. Liu Qibao and Governor Jiang Jufeng with China’s Railway Minister, Mr. Liu Zhijun.
5.In the last week of April,2008, the Chinese told the Nepalese authorities about their plans for extending the railway line to Lhasa inaugurated in 2006 up to Khasa a town on the Tibet-Nepal border. Mr.Aditya Baral, Adviser on Foreign Policy to then Nepalese Prime Minister Mr.Girija Prasad Koirala, told the media as follows: “Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala was told by a visiting Chinese delegation during a meeting that the Chinese Government has begun a railway extension project on its side to link with the Nepal-China border." According to Mr.Baral,the Chinese Communist Party delegation told Nepalese officials that the railway link would be ready in five years time. The Nepal border town of Khasa lies some 80 kilometres (50 miles) north of Kathmandu. "The railway network will be important for increasing trade and tourism for both countries," Mr.Baral added. The delegation reportedly told Mr. Koirala that Beijing had included the railway line extension in its ongoing eleventh five-year plan.
6. On August 17, 2008, a spokesman of the Chinese railways confirmed plans to add six more rail lines to the Qinghai-Tibet railway. Of these, one will be from Lhasa to Nyingchi and one from Lhasa to Xigaze, both in the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region. Three lines will originate from Golmud in the Qinghai province and connect Chengdu in the Sichuan province, Dunhuang in the Gansu province, and Kuerle in Chinese-controlled Xinjiang. The sixth will link Xining , capital of Qinghai, with Zhangye in the Gansu province. He said that the six lines were expected to be completed and commissioned before 2020.
7. Subsequent reports indicated that under the Development Strategy for Western China, the Chinese were planning to connect Lhasa to Zhangmu vis Xigaze to the West and to Dali via Nyingchi to the East and that they were planning further to link Xigaze with Yadong near the Sino-Indian border . Inaugurating a Chinese cultural festival at Kathmandu on October 10,2009, then Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal requested China to extend the Beijing-Lhasa railway line to Kathmandu. He said: "The economic ties between Nepal and China could be taken to a new height if the railway line that has reached upto Lhasa from mainland China could be extended upto Kathmandu, and economic infrastructure could be developed on the Himalayan transit points between Nepal and China."
8. In the wake of these reports has come a report about the beginning of the construction on the extension of the railway line beyond Lhasa towards Tibet’s border with Nepal, India and Bhutan. The “China Daily” of September 27,2010, has reported as follows:” “China on Sunday ( September 26) began construction on an extension to the world's highest rail link, the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. The construction will connect the Tibetan capital of Lhasa to Xigaze, Tibet's second largest city. The extension, in the southwestern part of the autonomous region, will create a 253-km railway line. The work will take four years, with a budget of 13.3 billion yuan ($1.98 billion), Zhang Ping, head of the National Reform and Development Commission, said at Lhasa.
9. It further reported: “The extension from Lhasa to Xigaze is the first extension of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, which opened in July 2006. The new section will pass through five counties and over the 90-km long Yarlung Zangbo Grand Canyon, to reach Xigaze, a city with a history of more than 600 years and the traditional seat of the Panchen Lamas. "It will play a vital role in boosting tourism in the southwestern part of Tibet and promoting the rational use of resources along the line," Liu Zhijun, Minister of Railways, said at a conference. The extended rail line will be a single line with a speed of 120 km per hour. Nearly half of the line, or 115 km, will be laid in tunnels or on bridges. "Laying rail tracks in tunnels in the mountains can avoid passing through the fragile natural reserves in Tibet," Wang Mengshu, a railway tunnel expert and member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, told “China Daily”
10. It added: “A news release from the Ministry of Railways said that the extension line avoids four natural reserves in the area. In addition, using tunnels can help reduce damage to the railway by earthquakes, since Tibet is prone to earthquakes, Wang said. "But the tunnels will add to the difficulty of construction, as it will be impossible to lay the tracks as fast as in the previous construction of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, which was built on top of permafrost," he said. The Qinghai-Tibet Railway is the world's highest railway. Some 960 km of its tracks are located 4,000 meters above sea level. About 550 km of the tracks run on frozen earth, the longest of any of the world's plateau railways. The Qinghai-Tibet Railway's first section from Xining, capital of Qinghai province, to Golmud of Qinghai was completed and opened to traffic in 1984. Its second section from Golmud to Lhasa started construction in 2001 and opened to traffic in 2006.
11. It added further: “A spokesman with the Ministry of Railways said that the future railway network in Tibet will have a "Y" shape, with two extensions planned. In addition to the extension from Lhasa to Xigaze, the other is from Lhasa to Nyingchi in the southeastern part of Tibet. Previous media reports said construction will begin in 2013 at the earliest. Xigaze city is the administrative center of the Tibetan prefecture of the same name, a 182,000-sq-km area that neighbors India, Nepal and Bhutan. It is also famous for Qomolangma (known as Mount Everest in the West), which rises up from it.”
12. Former Nepalese Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr. Khadga Prasad Oli, had indicated that the Government of Nepal would undertake a feasibility study on a possible railway link from Xigaze to Panchkhal of Kavre or Trishuli of Rasuwa. He said that the Government was thinking of developing Panchkhal or Trishuli as a special economic zone and added, "I am optimistic that the railway line will link Nepal via Kerung."
13. Only when the new line reaches Xigaze are the Chinese expected to take up the question of its further extension to Nepal’s border and possibly from there to Kathmandu. This could materialize only by about 2020.
14. The extended railway line from Lhasa and its projected further extension into Nepal would have the following implications:
* Stengthen the Chinese capability for continued suppression of the Tibetans.
* Strengthen the military-related infrastructure in the region which would enable rapid movement of troops in the event of a military confrontation with India.
* Give the Chinese a third military pressure point against India in addition to the direct pressure point across the Sino-Indian border and a second pressure point across Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir.
* Strengthen China’s economic links with Nepal at the expense of its links with India.
15. The Chinese concept of comprehensive national security regards infrastructure as an important component of national security. Hence, the Chinese emphasis on the development of road, rail and air infrastructure. The Chinese are worried about the security of their peripheral areas---particularly Tibet and Xinjiang---- ever since the fresh Tibetan revolt in 2008 and the revolt in Chinese-controlled Xinjiang last year. Infrastructure development in the peripheral areas has been receiving high priority.
16. Their interest in infrastructure development now extends to areas in Nepal and Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir beyond their periphery. The Governments of Nepal and Pakistan are not in a position to find the necessary funds for infrastructure development. Hence they look up to China for financial and technical assistance in this regard. The Chinese are taking full advantage of this to get actively involved in infrastructure development in POK and Nepali areas bordering India.
17. While the question of India competing with China in the POK does not arise, India could have competed with China in Nepal provided it had the necessary funds and technical capability. India is already involved in road development in certain areas of Nepal, but there is considerable fascination not only in Nepal, but also in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka for the Chinese engineering skills for the development of infrastructure. This fascination has increased further after the Chinese construction of the railway line to Lhasa.
18. Even in the past, the reputation of Indian engineers in this region was not as high as that of their Chinese counterparts. Now, these countries are seeing that India itself has been importing an increasing number of Chinese engineers for infrastructure development. How can we object to Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka seeking the assistance of Chinese engineers when we are ourselves doing so.
19. India is finding itself in a position where its infrastructure development has not been able to keep pace with that of the Chinese and its ability to compete with China in neighbouring countries has been diminishing. How are we going to get out of this situation? The crash development of our own infrastructure and making it of a quality which would impress the countries of this region should receive immediate priority. An outcome of our fascination with the information technology sector has been a decline in the number and the quality of the construction engineers produced by us. Unless this is reversed, China will continue to score over us in the field of infrastructure. ( 28-9-10)
( The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org )