Thursday, July 31, 2014

Gateway to Nepal via the roof of the world

Kyirong welcoming China
My article Gateway to Nepal via the roof of the world appeared today in the Edit Page of The Pioneer.

Here is the link...

Chinese plans to improve connectivity between Tibet and the Himalayan nation, by extending the railway network and building a new land-port at Kyirong, should be of concern in Kathmandu and New Delhi

Next week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will travel to Nepal. Can you believe that he will be the first Indian Prime Minister to pay an official bilateral visit to Kathmandu in 17 years? Press reports say that Mr Modi may also travel to Lumbini, the birthplace of Lord Buddha, and Janakpur, where legend has it, Lord Ram wed Sita.
This is good: India needs to re-establish her cultural, historical, economic and strategic links with Nepal as the Chinese are descending fast on the former Himalayan Kingdom. In September 2013, according to the Nepali publication The Republica, Mr Lobsang Gyaltsen, Chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region, told some Nepali officials visiting Tibet that China would extend a rail service to Nepal once the train reaches the southern city of Shigatse. At that time, the Nepali delegation seemed more interested in a Chinese-built railway line from Kathmandu to Lumbini.
Mr Hari Basyal, the Nepalese Consul General in Lhasa, said that Mr Gyaltsen, though non-committal about Lumbini, announced: “Feasibility study is underway for expanding rail service between Nepal and Tibet.” Mr Gyaltsen also expressed China’s commitment “to extend a meaningful support to Nepal for achieving the common goal of socio-economic development.” This is ominous for India. This month, The Global Times made the train story official: “Sky rail to run from Lhasa to south Tibet; further railway expansion to connect Nepal, Bhutan, India by 2020.”
The rail line, linking Lhasa and Shigatse (poetically termed by China as the ‘closest stretch of railway to the sky’), will be open in August. The construction of the extension of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, which started in September 2010, will be 254km long and have 13 stations. Trains will run at a speed of 120kmph and it will take only two hours from Lhasa to Shigatse, the TAR’s second largest city.
Kyirong (Chinese Gyirong) landport
According to Mr Yang Yulin, Deputy Director of the TAR’s railway office, it is the largest infrastructure project in Tibet during the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015), with an investment of more than $1.7 billion. The train to Shigatse has three basic purposes: One, to bring more tourists, the TAR’s main source of revenue (15 million will visit the region in 2014); two, to take away minerals to the mainland to feed the Chinese economic machine and three, to ‘strengthen’ the borders with India by allowing quick movement of troops and armament.
But Mr Yang also announced that during the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020) period, construction will start on railway line connecting Shigatse with Kyirong in northern Nepal and with Yatung, in the Chumbi Valley located between Sikkim and Bhutan. Xinhua also affirmed that Beijing will soon upgrade the road network in Tibet “to make travels on The Roof of the World much easier”. The Chinese Ministry of Transport said that it will expand its road network to 1,10,000km by 2020 in TAR alone. Should India not be worried? The MOT acknowledged that the development of transport in Tibet was “crucial to China’s national security… and the lasting prosperity in the autonomous region.” ‘National security’ here means the strengthening of the borders with India.
In the meantime, Nepal’s vital economic relations with its giant northern neighbour will receive a tremendous boost when the new Kyirong land-port 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. A cross-border China-Nepal Kyirong Port Economic Cooperation Zone will soon be established; further, the Kyirong Port will be promoted as a tourist destination for mainland Chinese.
Zham is currently the main land-port between the TAR and Nepal, though historically Kyirong has been important; Xinhua explains: “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.”
Very few remember that during the 1792 Tibet-Nepal War, the Manchu troops called by the Tibetan Government to defeat the Gorkhas used the Kyirong route to invade Nepal. Will the opening of Kyirong mean another ‘invasion’ of Nepal with lakhs of Chinese tourists (and cheap goods!) arriving in Kathmandu?
Economically, the new border infrastructure will undoubtedly benefit both sides of the border. On April 11, Mr 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. Mr Dong also affirmed that, “the Kyirong Port will serve as a link between China and the South Asian countries.” Geographically, it does not make sense for Kyirong to be the link between China and South Asia, but a railway line to Yatung could be this potential link.
It would explain the announcement that the train is being planned for Yatung too. Today the border trade between India and Tibet is minimal, despite the great hopes generated in 2006, when Nathu-la was opened between Yatung and Gangtok. Since then, border trade has stagnated (partly due to the restricted list of items allowed to be traded). Does the new announcement mean that China will like to open the Yatung-Nathula-Gangtok route in a big way? Has Beijing consulted New Delhi on this or is it a unilateral decision?
A Chinese official asserted: “The opening of the Kyirong Port will become a key trading port next to Zham Port, and an important destination for international trekking, folk activities and visitors’ driving tours.” 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 opening of Kyirong will certainly boost border trade between Nepal and Tibet (China).
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) and in a few years, the train will be available.
This will also have serious strategic and security implications for India, as military exchanges are bound to increase between Beijing and Kathmandu. During his visit, Mr Modi will have a hard time balancing the Chinese presence in Nepal, but the fact that he has chosen Kathmandu as his second bilateral destination, shows that he is determined to start on a new footing.

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