Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Tibetan railway signals border imbalance

Infrastructure, including road and rail links, on the Chinese side of the border has always been far more developed than the Indian side. Given that India and China are still embroiled in a long-standing border dispute, China's endeavors to improve its side of infrastructure along the border have emerged as a major cause of concern for India's political and military leadership. On August 15, 2014, India's Independence Day, China formally inaugurated its253-kilometer second railway line with 13 stations in Tibet.

The railway line is an extension of Qinghai-Tibet railway line to Shigatse which cost US$2.16 billion to build. Shigatse is the second-largest city in Tibet after Lhasa. Its significance also lies in it having been the traditional seat of the Panchem Lama. Considering the terrain in the area, the extension of Golmud-Lhasa railway line proved to be the most expensive railway line built in China.

To allay the apprehensions of India and the international media, the Chinese government claims that the infrastructure development in Tibet, particularly the extension of the railway line would serve socio-economic purposes and lift the living standards of Tibetans. They say that it is mainly to improve the economic condition of the Tibetan region by promoting tourism. Nevertheless, Tibetans in exile take a different view.

According to many Tibetans living outside China, the railway lines are being built to speed up the mining process in Tibet so that the Chinese can extract minerals from the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and transport it to the rest of China. In addition, the extension of the railway line will further bring a demographic shift; making it easier for China's Han population to migrate to the TAR. In India, the Chinese move has been seen as a step to ensure Chinese preparedness in the regions bordering India.

This railway line extension worries India for two reasons. First, it is indicative of China's burgeoning economic capabilities and military prowess. The extension of the railway line reduces the travel time between Lhasa and Shigatse to just two hours, which would allow the rapid transportation of troops and weapons to the southern part of Tibet. It may be noted that the southern part of Tibet is remote and sparsely populated. Second, it is very close to India's border in Sikkim and also to Nepal and Bhutan.

In the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020), China states that i plans to extend this railway line further and bring it closer to the Indian side of the border in Arunachal Pradesh. This extension would connect Shigatse to Kyirong in Nepal and the Chumbi Valley between Sikkim and Bhutan. Another railway line from Lhasa to Nyingchi Prefecture, which shares border with Arunachal Pradesh, is on the cards.

The only brighter side for India, at least on the security front, is that the next extension of this railway line is not going to take place before 2020. At present, the total road-rail network in TAR is about 48,600 km long. China plans to double the network to 110,000 km by 2020. However, once fully operational, this railway line would strengthen China's and arguably weaken India's bargaining positions in future border talks. It is believed that rail and road links along the borders would allow China to rapidly deploy its forces stationed in Chendgu.

What makes the matter worse for India is that it has poor infrastructure facilities along its borders. While the government has plans to develop these regions, the developments so far have been far from satisfactory. Clearly, for India the biggest challenge is to set its own house in order. Taking up matters of urgent security attention such as the border area development and infrastructure top the list of India's priorities.

While it cannot be denied that India wants to increase the presence of the security forces along the borders, holistic development still demands greater attention of India's policymakers. The mountain strike corps envisages that two special high-altitude rapid reaction divisions for the mountains and will be headquartered at Panagarh in West Bengal. Additionally, in 2009-10, two new infantry divisions comprising 1,260 officers and 35,000 troopers at Lekhapani and Missamari have been deployed in Arunachal Pradesh.

However, raising military divisions would not serve India's purpose. There is a need to conceptualize a comprehensive strategy that not only caters to the demands of the local people and connects them robustly with the rest of the country but will also lead to greater economic integration of border areas with the rest of India. China's efforts to develop infrastructure offers challenges and opportunities for India. A stronger India equipped with remarkable connectivity along the borders and the wherewithal to deal with any eventuality will also be able to see the developments on the Chinese side in a holistic perspective and may also benefit: that is, if the two sides can arrive at a mutually agreeable solution.

Sana Hashmi is an associate fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies in India.

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