By Claude Arpi
The extension of Tibet Railway to Nepal's border will have serious strategic implications for India, says Claude Arpi
It is official now: The newly built Tibet Railway will soon be extended to the Nepal border. The chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region announced it during the visit of Nepali Deputy Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli to Lhasa. A few days earlier a Chinese official Yu Yungui had told a news conference in Lhasa that the railway would reach Shigatse, some 270 km from Lhasa, in three years time. According to the Chinese official: "The railway will offer great opportunities for the social and economic development of Shigatse."
Xinhua points to a more interesting aspect: The Shigatse Prefecture borders India, Nepal and Bhutan in the south. Alarm bells should ring in Delhi's corridors of power. But do these corridors still have bells?
Another piece of news could also have triggered some chimes: A German Google Earth user spotted a military base in China's northern plains. There would be nothing extraordinary in this if the free satellite imagery software had not shown a startlingly accurate scale model of a highly sensitive area of the disputed Sino-Indian border in the Aksai Chin area of Ladakh. Now, the model is located 2,400 kilometres away in the Huangyangtan province. The military complex is said to be used for training and familiarisation of troops.
An army official told a reporter: "Militaries are always known to simulate potential conflict zones as a standard practice. There is nothing alarming."
Many still believe that because special representative MK Narayanan and his Chinese counterpart Dai Bingguo regularly meet to discuss 'border issues', it is in better taste to remain positive. But whether Delhi decides to remain optimistic or not, it is a fact that training on a Himalayan terrain today is still the part of the PLA training.
And then, one hears that the Chinese authorities are quietly building a dam in a remote part of Western Tibet, very close to the Indian border (Spiti sector). Satellite imagery shows that in the Zada gorge, the access point to Tsaparang (the capital of the ancient Guge kingdom) a dam is under construction. Though it could not be confirmed, the images suggest that the work is nearly completed. Of course, Beijing has not informed Delhi about it.
Memories of the tragic floods of the Sutlej in 2000 and 2004, which devastated a part of the Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh, are still fresh. The bursting of an artificial lake on the Parichu river, a tributary of the Spiti in Tibet, created havoc and led to the loss of many lives and properties in the Sutlej valley. The barrage at the Zada gorge forms a large reservoir and a breach could potentially create even larger damage.
As usual the MEA officials refused to comment on the existence of the dam. The Chinese officials have nevertheless decided to 'calm down' Delhi (though Delhi always remains calm). They admitted to having "built a small hydro-electric station on the Sutlej at 'Zada' to satisfy the electricity demands of the local population".
The spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry declared "I can't understand the (Indian) media reports." She claimed that China has "consistently adhered to the basic principles of fair and reasonable development of trans-border rivers."
But there is no treaty with China on sharing of water of rivers originating from Tibet and flowing to India. A MoU was signed on April 11, 2005, during the visit of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, but it is only 'for sharing' hydrological data on the Sutlej during the flood season. Concerning the use of Tibet's water, China is not bound by any agreement.
But let us come back to the train. For India, it has serious strategic implications for several reasons. First it is clear that the Chinese are getting ready for any contingency, particularly if the 'border talks' fail. Their logical next step will probably be to close China's Western Railway loop and bring the train from Shigatse to Kashgar, cutting across the disputed Aksai Chin. It will be the most serious threat to India's security since the Hindi-Chini bhai bhai era.
In Lhasa in 2001, President Hu Jintao had said: "With the passage of 50 extraordinary years, Tibet of today presents a scene of vitality and prosperity with economic growth, social progress and stability, ethnic solidarity and solid border defence." Note the emphasis on the 'solid border defence'.
The train will be the crucial factor to reinforce Chinese 'border defence'. Even if India would decide to build similar road or railway tracks to protect her borders, it would take at least eight to ten years to begin the work and perhaps as many years to complete it. Then another factor is the change of Tibetan demography.
A little known historical fact is that one of the main reasons for the PLA to withdraw in November 1962 after one month occupation of Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh was the serious unrest in Tibet. It has been documented by the Panchen Lama, the highest Tibetan authority after the Dalai Lama's flight in 1959, in a 70,000-character petition to Zhou Enlai. It is politely called: 'A Report on the Sufferings of Tibetans and Suggestions for Future Work to the Central Authorities'. If Tibet's demography changes, there will be fewer causes for unrest, calculates Beijing.
The train has been called "the largest and one of the most unprofitable projects". But Chinese are pragmatic; there is no question for them to invest in 'unprofitable' projects. The main beneficiary is bound to be the PLA, which today faces huge costs in feeding and equipping hundreds of thousands of soldiers in Tibet.
All this should keep new Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon, a China-Tibet expert, busy. Not only has he been posted in Beijing thrice, but also his father was one of the last Indian Consul Generals in Lhasa in the mid-1950s. Menon has probably not forgotten his holidays as a kid in Lhasa and we hope he will try his best to tackle the alarming situation.
More distressing is the fact that while China took five years to complete the 1,142 km Tibet Railway, India is still struggling to complete the 292 km Udhampur-Srinagar-Baramulla rail link. The Railway Ministry recently informed Parliament that the crucial 148 km stretch between Katra and Qazigund would only be complete by 2008-9 and that only 12 per cent work had been completed so far. No comment!