China’s move to ensure greater connectivity with Tibet and Sikkim raises many questions
By P Stobdan
In July, China would accomplish three major strategic objectives, which will have profound implications in the trans-Himalayan zone.
The opening of the Gulmud—Lhasa railroad, the new Nyingchi Airport near the tri-junction of Tibet, India and Myanmar and a land route access to Bay of Bengal through Nathu La, will mark the success of China’s long-drawn political, military and economic strategies to deal with domestic and external challenges.
The Chinese have never hidden the political purpose underlyig the Tibet railway project.
The completion of 1,142-km mammoth railway line to Lhasa, built with Russian scientists, marks the last phase of Beijing’s permanent solution to its Tibet problem.
It is expected to dramatically change the face of Tibet—not only by tightening China’s grip and quelling dissents—but also unleashing a wave of Han migration to the region.
With 12 per cent economic growth in 2002, Tibet is already a hot investment destination for the Chinese entrepreneurs. In turn, the Chinese hope that that the railway will help speedy assimilation of ethnic Tibetans into the Chinese mainstream. In past, hordes of settlers had swamped other minority regions and effectively Sinocized Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang.
The Chinese, however, remain wary of sabotaging by extremists apart from permafrost threatening security of 1,000-km rail line. It is not widely known, but already, over 100 Lhasa-bound trucks from Sichuan are ambushed by Tibetan radicals every year. In fact, the Chinese staged anti-terror manouvres in Tibet last year to deal with terrorist acts, explosions and hijackings.
There is disquiet in another quarter too.
With Tibet becoming latest “lebensraum” for Hans, environmentalists the world over are raising concern over the colossal damage by the railway and its related economic activities on the plateau’s fragile eco-system and unique cultural identity.
The Chinese are expected to exploit numerous Tibetan strategic minerals, including vast uranium deposits, for their future nuclear programmes.
Militarily, 360 railway wagons built with Bombardier’s assistance will help China’s second artillery bring ICBMs, the DF-31A and other tactical mobile nuclear missiles 1,000 kms closer to the Indian border.
It will also facilitate quicker mobilization of heavy military hardware and weapon stockpiles to the roof of the world and build Tibet as a strategic depth and second-strike capability vis-a-vis US/Taiwan.
According to Western estimates, it will enable rapid troop deployment—as many as 12 infantry divisions can be deployed to Tibet in less than 2 days. The Chinese have acquired the most precise location-tracking system GSM-R digital wireless communication network and surveillance system from Canadian Nortel Networks Corp for the railway, but they may be meant for other strategic purposes. By 2008, the rail line will be further extended to Shigatse nearer to the Himalayan border.
The railway will feed into the new Tibet-Nepal highway and now to Nathu La, that will provide China full access to Indian subcontinent. The road reopening after 44 years will bring Chinese goods to Siliguri corridor for onward distribution.
But one disquieting fact is that compared to Tibet’s 6,400-sq-km market at Dongqinggang, a prefabricated warehouse constructed at Sherathang in Sikkim is a laughable state of affairs.
If the latest media reports are correct, preparation on India’s side is mere symbolic, with one small road connecting Nathu La with Gangtok, which is ill-suited to match Chinese economic forays. Reports suggest that the Border Roads Organization (BRO) will take another four years to double-lane the road. The Sikkim government is envisaging the opening of another route through Jelep La.
But then we have found an easier bureaucratic solution, with the Central Government approving a list of 15 import and 29 export items for trade.
While the railway and the roads are expected to bring enormous prosperity to the two rising Asian giants, they may still face politically bumpy drives. Will the trans-Himalayan trade bring peace along the border?
Just as Tibetans fear the railway will help swamp Lhasa with dominant Han Chinese, the native Bhutias-Lepchas (already reduced to a minority in Sikkim) fear that trading will flood Sikkim with Bengalis and Biharis, driving out the natives further.
Just as the Students of a Free Tibet (SFT), Gu Chu Sum and others are planning global protests against China’s railway launch, Bhutia Organizations are threatening to take up AK-47s against external forays.
Inevitably, the peace will be disturbed in Sikkim, and many locals have already warned of an eruption of violence.
For Sikkim, another worrying issue is the possibility that the Chinese will push in a large number of Karma Kagyu followers.
Unlike the Dalai Lama, who has been championing the cause of Tibetans, the sole mission of the 17th Karmapa, Urgyen Thinley Dorje, who is believed to have been encouraged by the Chinese to take shelter in India, is to take over Sikkim’s Rumtek Monastery.
The Chinese have long been envisaging a Lamaist influence in the former Himalayan Kingdom and since the arrival of young Karmapa to India in 2000, networks across trans-Himalaya has intensified.
The possible Khampa influx into Sikkim could complicate the sectarian balance. New Delhi’s decision to keep the Karmapa away from Rumtek has already enraged a section of the Sikkimese. The Joint Action Committee of All Sikkim Buddhist Organization (JAC-ASBO), among others, has entangled the issue with their opposition to Sikkim’s merger with India.
Officially, China is yet to recognize Sikkim as a part of India and it is not an impossible thing to assume that Chinese trade policy across Nathu La is not fuelled by their national security and political agenda.
The actual Sino-India game over the Himalayas is beginning to unfurl only now.
Note: The author is Senior Fellow, IDSA, New Delhi