'Train To Lhasa'
by Claude Arpi (Author of The Fate of Tibet)

A few days ago, former Defense Minister George Fernandes is reported to have told a news agency: 'China has built roads up to the border, while there has been negligence on India's part.' He further lamented: 'China has even built roads in such areas where not a single human being lives or even a blade of grass grows'.

The allusion was not lost on anybody. In 1959, while intervening in Parliament on the 'Aksai Chin scam', Prime Minister Jawaharlal justified that his government had taken more than two years to discover that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) had been building a road on the barren heights of the Aksai Chin plateau in Ladakh, by saying: 'Nobody has been present there. It is a territory where not even a blade of grass grows. 'It had just come to light that a Chinese road had been built through Indian territory and that the Indian intelligence agencies had failed to notice its construction over the past several years. Kargil could be termed a 'mini' intelligence failure compared to the Aksai Chin blunder. We should take Fernandes' statement seriously as he is certainly still in the know of the progress China has made to develop its logistics and communications. Is it not the same Fernandes who had dared to say that it was not Nawas Shariff but a certain Chief of Army Staff who had planned and executed the Kargil episode? The CEO-General has now come to Agra and like Julius Caesar, he saw and conquered the battle (at least he thought he had), but for India is the real battle in the valley of Kashmir, on the peaks of the Siachen glacier, or in the near-by passes of the Aksai Chin?

In 1950, Mao's China decided to take a great leap toward the West. In October of the same year, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) entered Tibet with two slogans: China was 'deeply concerned about the prolonged oppression of the Tibetan people by the imperialists and needed to be liberated'. The second slogan was that the borders of China had to be 'consolidated'. Ominous! But who believed in omens in the fifties! Even Nehru had one day to admit in Parliament: 'but liberate from what?' In 1951-52, China undertook a gigantic program of road construction on the Roof of the World, linking Lhasa to the province of Qinghai and Sichuan. A few years later, at the height of the Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai love story, highways to Tsona, the border town with Tawang district of Arunachal, to Yatung, the traditional route through the Chumbi valley to India and the infamous Tibet-Sinkiang highway (through the Aksai Chin) were built. A few months ago, a new two-fold plan was announced in Beijing. This time it is no longer question of a 'liberation', but of 'development', a motto more in consonance with the beginning of the 21st century than the old revolutionary mantra. However, the second slogan is still the same: 'strengthening the borders'.

As fifty years ago, China is today undertaking a new program of 'development and protection of its borders', but the roads of yesteryear are replaced by faster railway tracks. Already in October 1995 Xinhua News Agency had announced the 'Third Railway Construction Boom.' The new railway construction drive was expected to bring new hope to the 'economic development of land-locked southwest China'. The news agency had reported that Tibet was going to be linked with the mainland by a railway track: 'the economic potential of the region, with rich agricultural and mineral resources is yet to be brought into full play due partly to inadequacy in railways. 'Since then the 'Go West' campaign has intensified and more resources have been invested into what China's Vice Minister of Railways Sun Yongfu presented last October as a way to 'promote the economic development of the Tibet Autonomous Region and to strengthen national defense.' Although the 'strengthening of the borders' is listed second in the program, it is without doubt, the most crucial factor for the leadership in Beijing.

Sun Yongfu made the announcement in front of other Cabinet ministers and western executives. It was part of a grandiose Tenth Five-Year Plan (2001-2005), which besides the 'Tibetan dream', (since the early fifties, Chinese engineers have been dreaming of a railway to Lhasa), has a proposal to 'boost the infrastructure of western China' by laying tracks along the ancient Silk Road from the Southern Xinjiang Railway to the states of former Soviet Central Asia. UPI commented: 'Sun's mention of defense concerns is a reminder that China's borders with India, the former Soviet Union and Vietnam have been troubled by skirmishes and full-blown war over the past three decades. Better rail links will facilitate swifter access for military personnel and equipment, which may also be targeted against the country's occasionally restive minorities.'Yet another plan was to open a rail link to Burma and Indo-China. One of the tracks would follow the Mekong River, from Kunming turn towards southern Yunnan to go into Indo-China. This would also be linked to the existing networks to create a 'pan-Asian' railway right down to Singapore. At the same time, it would bring a railway head very close to north Burma and India.Last February, the 1118-kilometer railway stretch from Golmud, the current terminus of the Qinghai-Tibet railway, to Lhasa received the final approval from the Chinese State Council (Cabinet). The China Daily had already reported that feasibility studies and construction plans (with four-fifths of the track to be built at an altitude of 4,000 meters) were already well under way.

Premier Zhu Rongji declared: 'The railway has great significance for the acceleration of economic and social development in Tibet and for the increase of economic and cultural exchanges.' One wonders about the cost of these 'exchanges'! More than 12 billion dollars have been earmarked for railway construction in China's western regions over the next five years with a significant portion expected to go for the Tibetan railway. The Dalai Lama and Tibetans in exile see the opening of Lhasa to railway traffic as a Chinese plot to 'liberate' Tibet a second time. Bringing 'vast seas of Chinese colons' into their country would be the best way to demographically 'cleanse' the Land of Snows, a technique successfully implemented in Inner Mongolia.

The London-based Tibetan Information Network (TIN) recently reported that that 'the construction of railways to Urumqi and Kashgar in the western-most Xinjiang Autonomous Region was accompanied by a significant influx of Han Chinese migrants, as was the establishment of a railway to Golmud in the 1960s.' Apart from the flood of Han colons, the extraction and transport of minerals (like uranium) and precious metals out of Tibet by railway will also benefit the Chinese government which could thus recover some of its investments. Even in Communist China, business is business and investments have to be recovered. But perhaps, more than the 'cultural' investment of Zhu Rongji, the investment on the PLA, is essential in the eyes of Chinese leadership. A couple of years ago, the PLA was deprived of its lucrative businesses, and since then, Jiang Zemin and his colleagues have been looking for ways to pacify and keep the Army busy. Is it not always better for an authoritarian regime to have the Army on its side? This was last seen in Tiananmen in 1989.

TIN commented: 'The interests of the People's Liberation Army are paramount in determining the foundation of national security and military infrastructure in China- two of the key motivations for constructing the railroad,' For India, the consequences are tremendous. Even if India would decide to build similar roads or railway tracks to protect her borders, it would take at least eight to ten years to begin the work and perhaps as many years to complete it. Some other events have to be seen in the same context. The first one is the visit of Hu Jintao to Tibet in July. The Chinese Vice President is widely expected to replace Jiang Zemin as Party Chief next year. His visit was meant to celebrate the 50 years of 'Liberation'.

During the course of his stay in Lhasa, Hu declared: 'With the passage of 50 extraordinary years, Tibet of today presents a scene of vitality and prosperity with economic growth, social progress and stability, ethnic solidarity and solid border defense. The people here are living and working in peace and contentment.' Most of the Tibetans who hate him for his excesses some ten years ago when he headed the dreaded Martial Law Committee in Lhasa, may not agree with his statement, but it is important to note the emphasis on the 'solid border defense'.

Another aspect is that Beijing has been successful in its bid to host the Olympic games in China in 2008. For Beijing, this is a great victory as for the first time in fifty years, China has been recognized by the concert of nations as a great power able to organize such a world event. For this reason, during the next seven/eight years, China will certainly do nothing to spoil its image of a modern and progressive nation. Beijing knows that lakhs of people will visit China on the occasion of the Games and the visitors will have to be positively impressed. This 'positive' campaign has been emphasised in the Tibet Daily by Ragdi, Tibet deputy Party secretary, who said: 'The battle against separatism has changed from a passive, perfunctory approach to a positive one.' For India, it indicates that for the next few years, China is bound to go for a Chini-Hindi Bhai Bhai policy (perhaps in developing the idea of a strategic triangle between Russia, China and India). Beijing knows that preparations to 'strengthen the borders' take time. It took nearly ten years between the time they began the road construction in Tibet and the attack against India on Tagla ridge in October 1962. Chinese leaders, unlike their Indian counterparts, are in the habit of always planning their 'development' and 'border defenses' decades in advance.

In the meantime, India and China have just concluded their ritual border talks: it was the 13th of the series. The Chinese Foreign Ministry refrained from commenting whether progress was achieved on the boundary issue. However, it is doubtful if the Indian side dared to broach the topic of the new railway lines pointing to India. It was the maiden trip of Foreign Secretary Chokila Iyer, who as a native of Sikkim must have been considered as a fellow countrywoman by her Chinese counterpart! She is also said to have met Tang Jiaxuan, the Chinese Foreign Minister and exchanged 'views on bilateral relations and international and regional issues of common interest'. However, today the stakes are clear, the border talks can continue, but if India gives in to the Chinese claims on Aksai Chin or elsewhere in UP or Arunachal, the Chinese planners will without doubt, include in their Eleventh Five-year plan, a railway track from Lhasa to Kashgar, cutting across Indian stones (if not grass) in Ladakh and closing the loop around India. It is indeed a far more serious issue than the near-by Siachen glacier.

Claude Arpi is a French dentist tuned Tibetologist living in India. He is the author of 'The Fate of Tibet' and an advisor to Friends of Tibet (INDIA)

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