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Diverging Tracks

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 01/09/21; September 21, 2001.]

The 1,118-km Gormu-Lhasa Railway Line Will Significantly Improve China's Military Logistics Capability and Exert Strategic Pressure on India

By Shishir Gupta
India Today
September 17, 2001.

China has a long history of politically driven construction projects. The Great Wall was one; the tradition continues. The Three Gorges dam project and the western highway linking its restive regions of Xinjiang with Tibet via the occupied Aksai Chin are recent examples. The 1,118-km Gormu-Lhasa railway link is the latest and perhaps the costliest project to join this growing list of building wonders. These capital-intensive projects have served Beijing's larger interests of internal consolidation apart from the economic development of the regions concerned. While the railway may be part of China's blueprint to control and integrate Tibet, the scheme has fired the imagination of Indian security planners given its strategic and economic ramifications.

Launched this summer and expected to be completed by 2006, the single- track metre-gauge railway link stretches from Gormu City in Qinghai province to Lhasa by breaching the mighty Kulun Shan ranges on the roof of the world. With a plan outlay of $2.34 billion (Rs 10,764 crore), the railway line will pass through 30 tunnels and bridges which alone will cover a distance of 37.5 km. It will be the world's steepest and highest railway line with more than 960 km of the track laid at altitudes over 1,300 ft and nearly 560 km over permafrost earth.

The Indian threat perceptions on the rail link have been bared in a classified Government report that delves into the implications of the project. The report, circulated at the highest levels of the Vajpayee Government, says the railroad connection will significantly improve China's military transport capability in Tibet. According to the Indian assessment, the project, besides linking Lhasa-Beijing- Shanghai by rail, will drastically reduce the travel time from Gormu to the Tibetan capital from 72 hours to 16 hours. It will also provide China an opportunity to annually transport five million tonnes of cargo from mainland China to Tibet and 2.8 million tonnes of mineral resources in the reverse direction. In military terms, the rail link gives China the capability to mobilise up to 12 divisions (12,000 men make a division) a month.


Colonising Tibet

According to Brahma Chellaney of the Centre for Policy Research, the Qinghai-Tibet Railway (QTR) project is a part of China's drive to reinforce its "colonisation" of Tibet. "It is aimed at further changing the demographic character of Tibet as Han workers are going to be relocated in the sparsely populated Tibet," he says. "The future of Tibet is central to India's long-term security," the China watcher adds. The Tibetan Government-in-exile at Dharamshala says the project will escalate the military build-up on the plateau. It says Beijing has plans to construct three more railway lines to Lhasa in a bid to tighten its grip on the autonomous region. These rail links, which will become operational by 2038, are the Lanzhou-Nagchu-Lhasa, Chengdu-Nagchu-Lhasa and Dali-Nyingtri-Lhasa routes.

The Indian defence establishment, though, is not unduly worried about the qtr link. Although it is monitoring the project that runs parallel to the Gormu-Lhasa highway and an oil pipeline, the army feels that the Chinese objective is economic progress utilising the virgin natural resources of Tibet. The Indian Army's assessment is that China has no territorial ambitions beyond Tibet. This is evident in the deployment of the Peoples' Liberation Army (PLA) on the 3,380 km Indo-China border. Beijing has five divisions (around 60,000 men) of border defence forces guarding its territory from Duchi bordering Arunachal Pradesh to Aksai Chin in Ladakh. These forces are backed by a 10,000-strong reserve of PLA troops. In comparison, the Indian Army has nearly 1,20,000 regular troops guarding the Indian territory from Arunachal to the Siliguri corridor in West Bengal. Regular troops also provide back-up support to the Indo-Tibetan Border Police in Uttaranchal, Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh. The perception is that China would rather go for "coercive diplomacy" than pose military threats to India.

With India trying to match China in economic growth, Delhi feels that the countries will compete with each other for the south Asian markets towards the end of this decade. According to the government report, as many as 45 containers of Chinese goods enter Nepalese markets from Chengdu and Sichuan. These cheap goods including electronic items, toys, and garments are then virtually dumped into India. Delhi feels that more highly competitive items such as "small size tractors, bicycles and motor-cycles" from mainland China will find their way into Indian markets once the qtr railway line is commissioned. The Indian problems will be compounded when trade barriers go down with China expected to join the WTO this year. While the finance and commerce ministries are trying to assess the post-qtr scenario, the Indian Government does not seem to have any firm plan to tackle Beijing's economic power reaching out to South Asia.

In order to tackle the military implications of Chinese infrastructural development in Tibet, India has launched a parallel exercise in areas bordering China. The Indian plans include revamping an airstrip at Daulat Beg Oldi outpost in Ladakh and building an airport in Sikkim. Fixed-wing aircraft operations from Oldi are expected to resume this year with landing trials beginning next month. The road network in the Northeastern states has been expanded and there are plans to double the Siliguri-Tinsukhia rail link. There are also proposals to build more bridges on the Brahmaputra. These moves are aimed only at dynamic deployments and better logistical capability.

Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji is expected to visit Delhi this year. It is in the interests of both countries to speed up the land- boundary settlement process and come up with confidence-building measures that promote bilateral economic growth.


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