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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Nepal to get China Rail Link

May 16, 2008

By Sudha Ramachandran
Asia Times (Hong Kong)
May 15, 2008

BANGALORE - China has begun building a railway connecting the Tibetan
capital of Lhasa with the market town of Khasa on the Sino-Nepal
border. The rail link, the latest Chinese initiative to improve its
transport infrastructure in the Himalayan region, is expected to
enhance Nepal's economic engagement with China and reduce its
dependence on India.

The 770-kilometer Lhasa-Khasa railway line is an extension of the
world's highest railway, which runs from Golmud in China's Qinghai
province to Lhasa. Inaugurated in August 2006, the Golmud-Lhasa rail
integrated Tibet into China's national rail network. With its
extension up to the Nepal border, Nepal will be plugged into China's
rail network.

Landlocked Nepal has hitherto largely been dependent on India for
imports. With trains from China soon reaching its border, Nepal will
find importing from its northern neighbor easier. Sino-Nepal trade
will expand exponentially, at India's expense.

Road and rail building has been a key component of the Chinese grand
strategy in the Himalayan region for decades. Building motorable
roads into Tibet began as early as 1950, in line with Mao Zedong's
orders to the People's Liberation Army as it prepared to annex the
territory: "Advance while building roads."

The construction of roads linking Tibet with Qinghai, Sichuan,
Xinjiang and Yunnan was achieved against all odds and at great human
cost. But it enabled Beijing to pour troops into Tibet to quell
unrest, provide supplies to soldiers deployed there, consolidate its
control over Tibet and integrate the area economically with China.

Now the focus is on improving Tibet's connectivity with South Asia,
flattening, as it were, the Himalayan barrier to overland trade.

Besides the Lhasa-Khasa railway, China is said to be considering an
extension of the Golmu-Lhasa line up to Xigaze, south of Lhasa and
from there to Yatung, a trading center, barely a few kilometers from
Nathu La, a mountain pass that connects Tibet with the Indian state
of Sikkim. There is a proposal too to extend the line to Nyingchi, an
important trading town north of the Indian state of Arunachal
Pradesh, at the tri-junction with Myanmar.

These rail lines will bring Chinese trains up to Sikkim and Arunachal
Pradesh - two Indian states that figure prominently on the radar of
Sino-Indian disputes. China claims 90,000 square kilometers of
territory in the eastern Himalayas, roughly approximating to
Arunachal Pradesh, and Chinese incursions are reported here
frequently. As for Sikkim, it is only since 2004 that China has
implicitly recognized its integration into India. Not only does
Sikkim share borders with Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan but also it is
situated above the "Chicken's Neck" - the sliver of land that links
India with its northeastern states.

The extension of the railway to the Sino-Indian border at Sikkim and
Arunachal could pose a threat to India's security and economy if New
Delhi fails to build its own network here to match the Chinese,
Indian analysts say.

In July 2006, Sino-Indian border trade was resumed at Nathu La in
Sikkim after a gap of 44 years. Officials in the Sikkim government
told Asia Times Online that compared with China's elaborate network
of roads and planned railway to Nathu La, "on this side of the border
the state of infrastructure is laughable".

One said: "When trade takes off in a big way in a few years, goods by
the train-load will arrive at Nathu La from China. India will be in a
position then to send back mere truck-loads."

Sikkim has only one road - a 56-kilometer single-lane link - linking
its capital Gangtok to Nathu La, and one landslide-prone road, just
five meters wide, joining the area with the rest of India. Sikkim's
road density is 28.45 kilometers per 100 square kilometer against the
national average of 84 kilometers. Arunachal Pradesh is even worse
off, with a road density of just 18.65 kilometers per 100 square kilometer.

India's rail network is the world's most extensive but it does not
penetrate the border-states of Sikkim, Tripura, Meghalaya, Mizoram
and Arunachal Pradesh. The situation in the other northeastern states
is only marginally better.

Economists and security experts have been warning that Delhi is
napping while China is set to chug up to the Sino-Indian border.
Government officials, for their part, point to innumerable proposed
road and rail projects. "The feasibility of some road and rail links
is being studied, some projects have been sanctioned and others are
being executed," a senior government official in Delhi told Asia Times Online.

India does plan to expand its rail links with Nepal, proposing to
extend across the Nepal border to Kathmandu the rail line at present
connecting Raxaul in Bihar state with Birganj. Trucks carrying Indian
goods from Birganj to Kathmandu have to travel 220 kilometers. A
train from Birganj to Kathmandu that cuts through mountains will be a
mere 80 kilometers, cutting travel time and costs.

The technical and financial feasibility of five other routes -
Nautanwa in India to Bhairahwa in Nepal, Nepalgunj Road to Nepalgunj,
Jogbani to Biratnagar, New Jalpaiguri to Kakrabitta and Jayanagar to
Bardibas - is being studied.

India also plans to run rail links to Bhutan, which like Nepal is
landlocked and sandwiched between India and China. There are plans to
connect Hasimara in India with Phuentsholing in Bhutan, Banarhat to
Samtse, Rangia to Samdrup Jongkhar, Kokrajhar to Gelephu and Pathsala
to Nanglam.

In Sikkim, the Gangtok-Nathu La road is being widened and the
government has sanctioned another linking Sikkim with the rest of
India to be built.

In Arunachal Pradesh, airports will be built in the state capital
Itanagar and another at Tawang, a district which is seen as holding
the key to the Sino-Indian border dispute. India is also constructing
a 1,840 kilometer trans-Arunachal highway touching India's borders
with China, Bhutan and Myanmar and a rail network.

This array of road and rail-building projects looks positive on paper
but completion targets may prove fickle, if the experience of the
strife-torn states of Jammu and Kashmir and Manipur is any guide.
Trains were supposed to be running in the Kashmir Valley by last
August, but that now looks unlikely to happen for another five years at least.

In comparison, road and rail projects in China are completed quickly
and often ahead of time. The Golmud-Lhasa line was ready a year ahead
of schedule. "China begins implementation of projects quickly," a
Sikkim government official said. A month after the inauguration of
the Golmud-Lhasa railway, China promised the Nepal government that it
would extend this line up to the Sino-Nepal border. "Less than two
years after that promise was made, work has begun," the official
said. "And it will be completed in five years."

Indian railway construction officials blame difficult, mountainous
terrain for the delay in projects. About 120 kilometer of the 292
kilometer Kashmir railway line consists of tunnels; delaying matters
further, several are reported to have collapsed during construction.
Yet the much longer Golmud-Lhasa rail runs through far more
treacherous terrain and climatic conditions and was completed on time.

India's road and rail projects in the Himalayan region often run
through insurgency-wracked regions, with security concerns adding to
delays. The Kashmir rail line has come under repeated attacks and at
least two Indian railway employees have been in efforts to halt the project.

Economists have said the Indian government has been shortsighted in
assessing the benefits and feasibility of projects. The Bhutan rail
link may attract too little passenger and goods traffic to justify
the cost and the Sikkim link may also serve merely border trade at Nathu La.

Compare that with the benefits to China of a Nathu La link, which
will open access to the Indian port of Kolkata and to markets in the
Indian plains, Myanmar and Southeast Asia.

Parts of the Indian establishment also fear that building an
extensive road/rail network along the country's northern borders will
help Chinese good to flood Indian markets - overlooking the
opportunities for India in the opposite direction.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.
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