The Railway line is coming
A railway line has always been an instrument of change; in some cases for the good; in other cases for the worse (the Native Americans were probably aware that they would lose their traditional way of life when the train stretched out to the Far West).
After the train arrived in Lhasa in July 2006, the Tibetans lived a similar experience, though maybe not as traumatic.
It brought them some prosperity and …13 million tourists.
Jiang Zehai, the deputy general manager of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway Company, which operates the train, recently told Xinhua: “More than 73 million people have travelled on the Qinghai-Tibet railway, the world's highest plateau rail track, since the route opened in July 2006.”
According to official figures, the train, spanning over 1,956 km from Xining in Qinghai province, to Lhasa in Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), has carried 73.79 million passengers in 8 years.
Jiang Zehai added: "Passengers on the rail link have increased on average 15.5 percent annually.” More than 1 million passengers left Lhasa railway station in 2013, a new record.
The train is not only used to carry Chinese tourists, coming to enjoy the Roof of the World’s pure air, but the Xining-Lhasa route has also transported 356 million tons of cargo.
Of course, the railway has been a boon for the tourism industry: last year the TAR attracted 12.9 million tourists, mainly from the mainland in 2013. A year before the rail link was opened, only 1.8 million travelled to Tibet; revenues have also grown exponentially: from 1.94 billion yuan (310 million US dollars) in 2005, it grew to 16.5 billion yuan (about 2.7 billion US dollars) in 2013.
The Tibet railway has also helped the Chinese engineers to gain a greater experience in technologies such as running on frozen land and in an extremely cold environment. It can be useful for further extension of the line.
In a few months, a new section will reach Shigatse, half way to the Nepal border. This too will bring tremendous change to Southern Tibet as well as nearby land-locked former kingdom.
The two next stages will see the train reaching Nyingchi, north of the McMahon Line (Arunachal Pradesh), but also Kyirong County (Chinese: Gyirong) in the TAR’s Shigatse Prefecture.
The Kyirong landport
In the meantime, Nepal's vital economic relations with its giant northern neighbour will receive a tremendous boost when the Kyirong landport opens later this year.
On April 11, the official China Tibet Online reported: "The Kyirong Port in southwest China’s Tibet bordered with Nepal will be formally opened in October this year.” The opening of the Kyirong Port has been listed as a key element of the Plan for national ports for 2014.
The same website also announces that a cross-border China-Nepal Kyirong Port Economic Cooperation Zone will be established; further, the Kyirong Port will be promoted as a tourist destination for mainland Chinese.
The website, affiliated with Xinhua continues: "The Kyirong Port enjoys a long history of being the largest land trading port between Tibet and Nepal. Many shop owners have expressed the hope that the opening of the port can help them get more involved in the border trade. From May 2007, the Shigatse Customs House dispatched four officials to be stationed at the Kyirong Port.”
Very few remember that during the 1792 Tibet-Nepal War, the Manchus troops called by the Tibetan government to defeat the Gorkhas used Kyirong route to invade Nepal. Will the opening of Kyirong mean another ‘invasion’ of Nepal?
Today, a ‘regular coordination system’ has been set up by the local government in Lhasa to coordinate the actions of the Kyirong County, the Kyirong Customs and the Risur Customs of Nepal. Tibetan officials have also decided to promote preferential trade policies to encourage the local people to participate in the border trade.
China Tibet Online also asserts that training have been provided to the port officials in Zham Customs House, the Class A port, east of Kyirong also in Shigatse Prefecture to cope with the new environment. Zham (or Dram in Tibetan) is currently the main landport between the TAR and Nepal.
Consequences of the opening of Kyirong
What will be the consequences of the opening of a new port between Tibet and Nepal?
Economically, the new border infrastructure will undoubtedly benefit both sides of the border. On April 11, 2014, Dong Mingjun, a vice-chairman of the TAR’s government told the media: "By the end of July this year, construction of roads, [provision for] energy and medical facilities will be completed at the port.” The Kyirong Port will also be equipped with special facilities for monitoring eventual smuggling.
Dong further affirmed that "the Kyirong Port will serve as a link between China and the South Asian countries. It is expected to bring a big number of visitors into Tibet and boost its tourism, which will help enhance the port’s popularity at home and abroad."
Does South Asia mean India in the official’s mouth?
Can Kyirong really be a link between the TAR and India?
Presently, it appears to be wishful-thinking from the part of the Tibetan officials.
Another administrator asserted: "The opening of the Kyirong Port will become a key trading port next to Zham Port in Shigatse [Prefecture], and an important destination for international trekking, folk activities and visitors’ driving tours."
In other words, Chinese tourists and goods will be poured into Nepal through the Lhasa-Shigatse railway line and then the highway between Shigatse and Kyirong (a branch of the highly-strategic G219 highway linking Tibet to Xinjiang, known in India as the Aksai Chin Road).
China boasted that as early as 789 AD, Kyirong served as a hub for commercial and cultural exchanges between Tibet and Nepal (it is true, though the Manchus were around for a few months only).
It is only in 1961 that Kyirong obtained from Beijing the status of ‘Port of Entry’, in other words, the approval to do business with Nepal; in 1987, Kyirong was upgraded to a national first-class (A Grade) land port of entry. By the end of 2008, Kyirong's imports and exports of had reached 0.67 million U.S. dollars.
Till now, the transactions in Kyirong represented only a small percentage of it; this will change with the opening of the new land port.
The Chinese official asserted that "the Kyirong Port will be opened wider to the outside world with improved operation capacity in order to promote trade with South Asia and become a cross-border economic cooperation zone between China and Nepal."
Will South Asia at large and India in particular be benefited by the new border post is separate issue.
Border Trade to boost Nepal economic growth
While the border trade between India and China is stagnating, Nepal has become Tibet's most important trading partner.
On July 15, 2012, Gao Yinhua, an official with the TAR's Commerce Department stated that with better transport infrastructure, the bilateral trade has enjoyed a boost in recent years and Nepal is today Tibet’s most important trading partner.
Bilateral trade accounted for more than 70 % of Tibet's total foreign trade volume in 2011. The official stated that bilateral trade skyrocketed to 945 million U.S. dollars in 2011, up 86.2 percent year-on-year basis.
In 2000, the trade volume between Nepal and Tibet was only 200 million U.S. dollars, while it was 60 million dollars in 1997.
Gao described three characteristics of the bilateral trade: First, trade volume between Tibet and Nepal has been rising drastically in recent years. This is particularly true for small-scale border trade. Tibet's export volume to Nepal is more than 90 percent of its total export through all regional borders.
Then, trade fairs have played a crucial role in boosting bilateral trade. The 13th economic and trade fair held in Kathmandu in 2011.During the fair 12 trade contracts for some 10 million U.S. dollars were signed.
Finally, Gao explained China and Nepal have conducted regular dialogues to promote their trade. Trade officials of the Tibet government have met with their Nepal counterparts in 2010, 2011 and 2012. It greatly facilitated bilateral trade.
In May 2011, the website China Tibet Online reported that the Second Trade Conference of China Tibet-Nepal Coordination Committee was held in Kathmandu. He was attended by Ye Yinchuan, Deputy Secretary-General of the Tibet Autonomous Region.
On the occasion, Ye mentioned the achievements made by both sides since the committee's first conference was held in 2009. The Tibet delegation also discussed the ‘hot issues’ including tax-free trade zone, transportation upgrade and trade imbalance. The first conference was held in Lhasa in April 2009
Interestingly, the Chinese website mentioned that “the Tibet Autonomous Regional Government has been stepping up its efforts to develop the ports of entry as the border trade between Tibet and Nepal and India is growing fast.
While the infrastructure on the Tibet-India’s border is stagnating, the large-scale upgrading of the Chinese-Nepal Highway allows the Zham land port on the Tibet-Nepal border to be reached by bus from Lhasa in one day. The construction of a new joint customs inspection building in Zham has also been completed. The new Kyirong Port of Entry, which received a total funding of 175 million US dollars, should further boost the economic exchanges between Nepal and China.
Can there be any benefit for India?
A Chinese website points out that with the opening of the Lhasa-Shigatse branch line of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, the cost of transportation between Yadong (Yatung, Chumbi Valley) and other parts of Tibet will fall substantially. What is the TAR government trying to hint at?
That the Sino-Indian border trade could be boosted in Yatung too?
In April 2013, AFP reported that ‘China eyes India trade by boosting spending in Nepal’. The news agency stated that China’s ambassador to Kathmandu was seen in a traditional Nepali cap and silk scarf, digging with a spade to symbolise the laying of the foundations of the new land port.
China had then just completed a 22-kilometre road connecting central Nepal with Kyirong County. The new road was said to be the shortest motorable overland route between China and India.
In March 2013, Purna Basnet, a Nepalese political commentator told AFP that this will help China to export to India: “It will be easier for China to supply goods to India via Nepal. There is even talk of connecting Kathmandu with the rail network in Tibet. The Shigatse-Lhasa railway will be completed in a couple of years. From Shigatse, they have plans to connect Kathmandu through railways.”
In an op-ed article in The Republica two months earlier, Chinese ambassador Yang Houlan had propounded the same theory — Kathmandu could be a trade gateway to New Delhi: “From an economic viewpoint, Nepal links China (with 1.3 billion people) with South Asia (with 1.5 billion). The huge common market provides great opportunities for both China and South Asia.”
This argument however does not make real sense. If India was keen to trade with Tibet (or vice-versa), why is the trade through Nathu-la pass between Sikkim and Tibet faring so poorly? The 2 other landports in Shipki-la (Himachal Pradesh) and Lipulekh-la (Uttarakhand) are not doing even worse, mainly it is true because of the restricted list of items to be imported/exported.
The message from Lhasa (or Beijing) is clear: Kathmandu, once a secluded kingdom will be well connected by road (and later by train) to the TAR, could import petroleum products from China. Nepal has not forgotten the unwise economic blockade put in place Rajiv Gandhi.
Perhaps more interesting, a couple of years ago, a Nepali government statement mentioned that “an expanded and enhanced connectivity between the two countries [Nepal and China] will also open the avenues for Nepal being a transit country between the two giant economies, China and India."
It is not clear if India was asked her opinion on the subject.
The Tibetan refugees in Nepal
There other implications to the opening of Kyirong landport on a larger scale.
One factor is the presence of Tibetan refugees in Nepal. With the booming of the trade relations, their position is bound to become even more uneasy.
On April 12, The Sunday Review of the The New York Times published an Editorial on Nepal entitled Doing China’s Bidding in Nepal.
It quoted a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report which "shows how far Nepal has gone in capitulating to Chinese pressure in cracking down on Tibetan residents and refugees."
The report gave a long list of strong actions against Tibetans in Nepal, including “restrictions on their activities and movements, surveillance and intimidation, arbitrary detention and forcible return to China."
The New York Times asserted: "In effect, Nepal has turned itself into a partner of China’s anti-Tibetan policies."
The human rights group affirmed that Beijing has had three primary objectives:
- Ensuring Nepal’s effective cooperation with China’s efforts to put an end to clandestine border-crossing by Tibetan asylum seekers and migrants;
- Enforcing a de-facto ban on pro-Tibetan political mobilization in Nepal;
- Enrolling Nepal’s intelligence and law-enforcement apparatus to monitor and infiltrate Tibetan communities living in Nepal.
The New York Times concludes: "Mr. Koirala and Nepal’s Constituent Assembly should move quickly to guarantee resident Tibetans legal status that respects their basic rights, and to treat Tibetan refugees in accordance with Nepalese and international law."
As the economic relations between Nepal and China become closer, the position of the Tibetan refugees will become more untenable, probably forcing many of them to take refuge in India.
The other consequence of opening of a new border port is strategic. At this level, the Sino-Nepalese relations fast are improving.
China Military Online reported that on February 21, 2014, Girija Prasad Koirala (meaning Shushil Koirala!), Prime Minister of Nepal met with General Wang Guanzhong, the deputy chief of general staff of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Kathmandu.
According to the Chinese news agency, Koirala told the general: "Nepal and China have long been maintaining good neighborly relations, and Nepal regards China as a reliable friend and partner, and thanks China for providing long-term selfless help and assistance in economic and social development of Nepal".
It is not necessary to comment of the 'selflessness' of Beijing.
Koirala added that "The new government of Nepal will always develop its relations with China on the basis of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence as before, continue to firmly pursue the one-China policy and not allow any force to engage in anti-China activities by using the territory of Nepal."
It is what General Wang Guanzhong wanted to hear.
He profusely thanked Kathmandu "for Nepal’s long-term and firm support on issues concerning China’s core interests such as that on Tibet."
He assured the new Nepali Prime Minister: "The Chinese military is willing to strengthen the pragmatic cooperation with the Nepalese military in the new historical period so as to make contributions to the development of the relations between the two countries."
This could be a source of worry for India.
The opening of a new landport at Kyirong should give a great boost to the border trade between Nepal and Tibet (China).
However, it is doubtful if it could significantly impact the trade relations between China and South Asia, particularly the Sino-Indian trade pattern.
The new port and the arrival of the train in Shigatse (and later in Kyirong) could also have strategic and security implications on India, especially if the military exchanges increase between Beijing and Kathmandu.
The Tibetan refugees in the long run may find it difficult to survive in Nepal, where the influence of China seems to increase by the day. It might create security issues for New Delhi, which over all should remain vigilant.