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The Train in Tibet and the Clouds over the Himalayas

October 14, 2010

Claude Arpi
The Statesman
October 9, 2010

NEW China has no money problem. When Chinese
Premier Wen Jiabao visited debt-laden Greece last
week he promised to double trade in five years
and buy Greek bonds when Athens returns to
international markets. It is a way to invest the
Middle Kingdom’s phenomenal export trade surplus.

Another way to invest is to build infrastructure
within the boundaries of China. This serves
several purposes: it helps stabilize ‘restive’
regions of the Empire, gets some revenue out of
the tourism development and perhaps more
importantly ‘defends’ the borders of the People’s Republic of China.

The construction work on a strategic rail line
which will be connecting Lhasa to Shigatse, the
Tibetan Autonomous Region’s (TAR) second largest
city is an important step towards the borders of
Nepal, and also India and Bhutan.

Zhang Ping, the head of the powerful National
Reform and Development Commission (corresponding
to our Planning Commission) stated that the
253-km extension will cost about 13.3 billion
yuan ($2 billion) and take four years to complete.

Officially, the railway is being brought to
modernize and develop the region. But nobody is
fooled by Beijing’s propaganda: the train will be
used to bring more Han migrants and change the
mountainous region’s demography. In The China
Daily, Railways Minister Liu Zhijun admitted the
‘vital role (of the railway) in boosting tourism
"and promoting the rational use of resources
along the line’. Despite the declarations of
Zhang Qingli, the Communist Party boss in Tibet:
“The railway will detour around nature reserves
and drinking water sources… measures will be
taken during construction to better protect the
fragile plateau environment." It sounds like
looting the rich mineral resources of the Tibetan plateau.

But that is not all. More importantly for India,
the rail can be used to bring missiles closer to
the Indian border. Recently in its annual report,
the Pentagon stated: "To improve regional
deterrence, the PLA has replaced older
liquid-fuelled, nuclear-capable CSS-3
intermediate-range ballistic missiles with more
advanced and survivable solid-fuelled CSS-5
[DF21] MRBMs (Medium Range Ballistic Missile) and
may be developing contingency plans to move airborne troops into the region.”

Known as DF 21, some of these missiles have been
based in Qinghai province in the north-eastern
part of the Tibetan plateau. The Federation of
American Scientist Security blog found out: "In
one image, taken by the GeoEye-1 satellite on
June 14, 2010, two launch units are visible
approximately 230 km west of Delingha (with Da
Qaidam, it has been the traditional bases of the
Second Artillery Corps in the region). The units
are dug into the dry desert slopes near Mount
Chilian along national road G215. Missile
launchers, barracks, maintenance and service
units are concealed under large dark camouflage,
which stands out clearly in the brown desert soil."

The proximity to the highway makes them mobile.
The same blog explains: "It requires solid ground
when launching to prevent damage from debris
kicked up by the rocket engine. As a result,
launchers would have to stay on roads or use the
pre-made launch pads that stand out clearly in
high-resolution satellite images.”

Moreover, a launcher needs support vehicles for
targeting, repair, and communication; though it
is not an easy proposition to move these missiles
around, the train may, in the future be of great help.

The extension of the railway towards the Nepal
border will make it easier for the People’s
Liberation Army to rapidly deploy missiles
targeting the large Indian metropolis, without being spotted.

The Pentagon report has mentioned only the road
network: "China is currently investing in road
development along the Sino-Indian border
primarily to facilitate economic development in
western China; improved roads would also support
PLA border defence operations."

When the railway line to Lhasa was inaugurated in
July 2006, many in India expressed some concern.
Since then, rumours have been circulating that a
parallel line was being constructed to allow the
movement of troops and military equipment. Added
to the extensive network of good roads and
airports in Nyingchi (north of Arunachal
Pradesh), Ngari (north of Uttarkhand/Himachal) as
well as the improvement of the present airport
facilities in Lhasa and Chamdo in eastern Tibet,
this should be a reason to worry for India.

Wang Mengshu, a railway tunnel expert and member
of the Chinese Academy of Engineering told The
China Daily that half of the line to Shigatse
(some 115 km) will be laid in tunnels or on
bridges. Officially it is to protect the
environment, but it is undoubtedly easier to hide train loads in tunnels.

In a few years’ time, the next extension of the
railway will reach Nepal and Nyingchi with all
the consequences one can imagine for the defence
of the Arunachal Pradesh border.

Today Sino-Nepal relations flourish as never
before. The website China Tibet Information
Center, a subsidiary of the official Xinhua news
agency, announced on 13 July that the land port
between Nepal and Tibet located at Gyirong
(Shigatse Prefecture) will be fully operational
in 2011. The website affirmed: "Since the end of
2009, TAR has made great efforts to build the
Gyirong Port and speed up its construction in 2010."

The Economic Times affirmed: "China is expanding
its engagement with Nepal by building what is
being billed as the biggest land port connecting
it with the South Asian region as a whole,"
adding: "The idea is to apparently build it as a
border post larger than Nathu-la (in Sikkim)."

The message is clear, even if there is nobody to
read it in Delhi. Kathmandu is interested to
import petroleum products from China once the
secluded ex-Kingdom is connected by rail to TAR.

Another worrying piece of news is the fact that
Nepal is quickly becoming a Chinese colony. A
Nepali newspaper reported last week: "Nepal
government has lately vowed to check ‘anti-China
activities’ to strengthen friendly ties with
China, a major donor for the impoverished country."

When the Tibetan diaspora recently voted for
their Kalon Tripa (prime minister-in-exile), it
was an ‘anti-China activity.’ While the elections
were held smoothly everywhere else in the world,
Kathmandu decided to confiscate the ballot boxes.
The Ministry of Home Affairs of Nepal issued a
statement that the internal vote of the Tibetans
was "against Nepal’s foreign policy which regards
Tibet as an integral part of China."

The Kathmandu police chief explained that the
action was taken to prevent an ‘illegal vote.’ He
told AFP: "The Tibetans are living in exile in
Nepal. It is illegal for them to carry out elections here."

Many observers see a connection between the Nepal
government’s reaction and the visit a few weeks
earlier of a Chinese high-level delegation led by
He Yong, Secretary of the 17th Central Committee
of the Communist Party of China. He is reported
to have shown his satisfaction over "Nepal’s ‘one
China’ policy and the alertness adopted by the country over the Tibet issue."

Earlier, the Chinese and Nepal governments had
agreed to set up a joint mechanism to share
intelligence on ‘anti-China activities’ in Nepal.

All this does not augur well for India which has
a tendency to think and act at elephant’s pace,
while Beijing is moving its cards more and more swiftly.

(The writer is an expert on China-Tibet relations
and author of the book Fate of Tibet.)
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