It is curious that China, which built a multibillion dollar railway line from the province of Qinghai to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, only in 2006, has now approved the building of a second rail line, this time from Lhasa to Nyingchi to the east, parallel to India's Arunachal Pradesh. The matter has raised concern not only inside Tibet but also in neighbouring India. It is feared that the central authority in China is eager to further consolidate its political grip in the region and also to come in close proximity to Indian forces in the disputed border in eastern Himalayas. But is this really so?
The story of building the first railway line, the Qinghai-Lhasa connection, is a fascinating one. The Chinese faced tremendous engineering challenges when they started work on this project. It was a marvelous achievement to build this line at such a high altitude in the Himalayas. There was need to build long tunnels through the mountains, and in an oxygen scarce environment. The line traversed the 16,000 feet high Tanggula Pass and set up the Tangulla railway station, which became the highest railway station in the world. The railway line in fact connected Beijing the capital of China with Lhasa the capital of the province of Tibet, and for the first time in history brought these two important regions in Asia close together.
The construction of this marvel railway line was part of China Western Development strategy to include the poorer parts of China with the developed eastern part of that country. In 2008, China announced that in time it would extend the railway line to Khasa in the Nepalese border. It was also suggested by China to connect this line to Indian and Bangladeshi railway networks eventually. Thus, a continental bridge would be established linking China directly with South Asia. How marvelous an idea, and a welcome project of the future.
But let it not be forgotten that the present Qinghai-Lhasa railway line had to break many conventional engineering practices. Nowhere in the world has a railway line been built over barely permanent permafrost. In summer the uppermost layer thaws and the ground becomes muddy. The heat from the passing trains melts the permafrost further and makes the tracks insecure. So, Chinese engineers built elevated tracks with pile driven foundations sunk deep into the ground. This added to the cost of building the line, and was a logistical nightmare. Yet the railway line was built and is in use today. Of course, the line has come under the harshest criticism from the outlawed Tibetan independence groups, both from inside China and outside. They allege that the line was built at such great cost and effort to strengthen China's political control over Tibet. It will only encourage Han Chinese to migrate into Tibet from the other provinces and control the local population.
How far this is true, only the future will tell. But the idea of connecting Tibet by rail came first from the pioneer of China's democratic revolution, Sun Yat-sen, as early as 1899.He had proposed to establish a united community of all ethnic groups of China to resist foreign imperialist aggression. In order to materialise this idea he felt it was vital to build railways in Tibet so that frontier defense could be consolidated and Tibet's economy developed. The Chinese were inconvenienced as they could not transport their troops in large numbers due to non existence of easy transportation. So in 1911, when the government of Republic of China was proclaimed under Sun Yat-sen, he emphasised that military strength was a necessary pre-condition to solving the Tibet issue.
Subsequently, when the People's Republic of China was established, the matter of connecting Tibet with China was taken up in right earnest. But in the initial years, due to lack of funds as well as the gargantuan engineering challenges, the idea was shelved. It was only in 2006 that the first railway line was built and put in operation. The second, connecting Lhasa to Nyingchi, is a natural extension of that idea of connecting remote regions of Tibet with the locus of power in the country. The experience gained in combating the engineering challenges when building the first railway line would be used when building the second line in the Himalayas.
This October, the National Development and Reform Commission of China announced that it had approved this second rail line. The 402 kilometre line is expected to further tourism and spur economic development. However, some analysts also say that troops brought to Tibet to suppress dissent can also be easily transported. Again, Chinese troops can be taken to areas where Indian forces along the border in Arunachal Pradesh, which both India and China claim, are perched. The railway will be able to bring the Chinese troops in close proximity to Indian border troops high in the Himalayas. The Indian government is reported to be planning to build its own infrastructure along Arunachal to confront any Chinese military threats.
It is now debatable whether the second railway line in Tibet will be able to usher in peaceful economic development in the region. The only option for both the countries is to settle their border dispute and finalise their international boundaries before the second line is built.
Let us not forget that Bangladesh is not far from the disputed border of China and India as the crow flies. So once these countries invest huge amounts in building railway infrastructure they might be tempted to use them willy-nilly for military purposes. We would be at risk of being sucked into a dispute which is not ours.
The writer is a former Ambassador and a commentator on current issues.