China is set to extend its Tibet railway network into the strategically important Chumbi valley area, next to Sikkim and the Siliguri corridor. This was confirmed by a Chinese Railways Ministry map, put out last month, showing China’s “long term railway network plan”.
Until now, these plans were being loosely speculated upon, but they now have an official stamp on it. The latest map shows the railway line extending from Lhasa to Zangmu on the Nepal border, which is going to eventually extend into Nepal and even Kathmandu.
According to the plan, another line will branch out midway from this link to Zangmu, at a place called Shigatse. This line will move east and go right up to Yadong, on the mouth of the Chumbi Valley. This town is connected to Sikkim through the Nathu La pass and is strategically located on the tri-junction of India, China and Bhutan.
There are areas near Yadong which are still disputed between China and Bhutan. The area witnessed military conflict in 1962 as part of the Indian effort to defend Nathu La.
While construction on the line has not yet started, sources said, feasibility studies are already being conducted. This project is slated for completion by 2017, bringing the Tibet railway just 500 km short of the Siliguri corridor. This may raise demands from Bangladesh to provide connectivity to the Chinese market via India.
This project must be seen along with the hectic progress, further east, on a railway line connecting Kunming in China to Singapore. With the Thailand government throwing its weight behind the idea, work on this project is moving at a quick pace. Given that there already exists a trade route from the Indian border to Kunming, the understanding is that pressure will increase on India to link up with the Chinese railway network.
What is of more concern to India is that the improved technological ability in this sphere means Beijing will end up meeting its deadlines. In the last year, China added over 10,000 km of high speed railway, and in the past five years has built 70,000 km railway lines. India, on the other hand, has struggled to connect Bhutan to India by rail.