Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The new panacea for the Middle Kingdom’s problems?

Premier Li Keqiang inspecting the Lhasa-Nyingtri railway route
Railways have recently been in the news in the Chinese press, particularly new railway lines on the Tibetan plateau and its periphery.
Yesterday, an article dealt at great length about the ‘LaLin’ section of the Sichuan-Tibet Railway.
‘Lalin’ is a short form for Lhasa-Linzhi railway (‘La’ for Lhasa and ‘Lin’ for Linzhi, called Nyingtri by the Tibetans).
On September 18, Xinhua reported that the China Railway’s 11th Bureau had successfully laid the first group of ballasts for the Gonggao [Gonkar?] station, the first new station in the railway line: “thus created the traffic conditions for the passage of the Lalin Railway.”
Liu Jun, the Secretary of the Lhasa-Nyingtri Project told the agency that the Sichuan-Tibet Railway was a key project of the National 13th Five-Year Plan: “Upon completion, it will become another railway artery connecting the plateau with the mainland.”
In 2006, the Qinghai-Tibet Railway was opened to service.

Details of the Lhasa-Nyingtri Project
The Lhasa-Nyingtri Project section is an important section of the Sichuan-Tibet Railway; it is certainly relatively easier to build than the eastern part.
It will have a total length of 435 kilometers and 34 new stations, including 17 which which are already existing. It will start in Lhasa and end at Nyingtri City and follow the Yarlung Tsangbo River (Siang/Brahmaputra in India).
The construction of this section started at the end of 2014; it should take 7 years to complete the entire project and the speed of the train will be 160 kilometers; it will be the first electrified railway in Tibet.
The Railway line will cross the Yarlung Tsangpo 16 times. The railway bridges use large-span bridge structures: “The mountains are high in water depth, the rivers are rushing, the technology is special, and the construction is extremely difficult. There are 14 high-risk tunnels out of 47 tunnels, of which 7 are extremely high-risk tunnels,” explained China Railway's 11th Bureau.

Not being afraid of difficulties
On September 6, another article which appeared in China Tibet Online reported that Lhasa-Nyingtri Railway was making smooth progress; a total of 2.72 billion yuan has been invested between January and August 2018: “Relying on advanced technology and the spirit of not being afraid of difficulties, now the Lhasa-Nyingchi Railway project is progressing well,” said a release.
The annual planned investment is 4.38 billion yuan.
According to the authorities, the project should promote town development, resource exploitation [mining?], industrial upgrading, emergency rescue and relief, emergency situation ...and perhaps more importantly national defense.
Beside this, it will play an important role in implementing the scientific development concept, building a harmonious society, implementing the Western Development strategy; it will promote the coordinated development of eastern and western economies, improve the layout of the regional rail network, connect Yangtze River Economic Zone and Sichuan-Chongqing Economic Circle, promote the development of Shangri-La Ecological Tourist Area and improve the investment environment.
Quite a long list of benefits!
And as importantly, the construction of new towns along the line will improve people's living standard, and speed up the pace of poverty alleviation in Tibet.
In one word, the panacea for all problems on the plateau.
But national defence is certainly one of the major objectives of the project.

A map of future railway lines
Interesting is a map found on a Pakistani website accompanied one of these articles.
The ‘Lalin’ railway line is in green, but several new lines are shown reaching the plateau. They are worth noting:
  • The Lhasa-Shigatse-Kyirong section which should be completed in a couple of years (it was delayed due to the 2015 Nepal Earthquake)
  • The Lhasa-Yatung section reaching the Chumbi Valley and the Indian border in Sikkim. It has serious strategic implications for India, especially after the Doklam episode. Though it is rarely mentioned in the Chinese press, it is clearly on the cards (it is not in dotted lines)
  • The projected Yunnan-Tibet railway line which has special strategic implications to India too, particularly for the border in Arunachal Pradesh (in a dotted line). It will join the Sichuan-Nyingtri line somewhere near Chamdo.
  • Korla-Golmud is already under construction. It will be the second major railway line linking Qinghai province to Western Xinjiang.
  • The Shigatse-Rutok-Kashgar line (in dotted line). It is a novelty. It may follow the G219 Highway (known as the Aksai Chin road). Will India protest if China starts building a railway on its territory?
  • A new Qiemo-Korla line across the Taklamatan desert. An extension of G216 Highway is under construction. It should be following the highway.
  • The Khotan-Quiemo line in Xinjiang. It will link up with the Khotan-Kashar line. It is probably important for the totally unstable Muslim province, in order to ‘stabilize’ southern Xinjiang and build new model villages/town along the line.
  • The Khotan-Tashkurgan line, leading to the border with Afghanistan.
    Tashkurgan has historically been part of the Silk Road. “Major caravan routes converged leading to Kashgar in the north, Yecheng to the east, Badakhshan and Wakhan to the west, and Chitral and Hunza to the southwest” says Wikipedia.
  • A never seen-before project to link Chengdu in Sichuan to Golmud in Qinghai. It will close the loop linking the two provinces on the West and North of the Tibetan plateau and link up Xinjiang through the above-mentioned Golmud-Korla line.
Incidentally at the end of July, Li Keqiang, the Chinese Premier visited a construction site of the Lhasa-Nyingchi railway.
Li stressed the importance of the project for the development of Tibet and  for the ecological protection [how is not clear]: "The railway project is beneficial for Tibet to cultivate new growth drivers, and it is the right thing that must be done. Full construction work should be accelerated," Li said.
He added that "at present, infrastructure development in the country's central and western regions is relatively weak, and promoting effective investments to improve weak links will not only narrow the gap in regional development but also helpful for the country to cope with economic downturn."
He further observed: "China should avoid strong stimulus and take targeted measures that are beneficial in both short and long terms."
Implications for India
All this should be quite worrisome for India.
However the main problem for Beijing seems to be: can China afford all these new projects?
Who will finance these mega-developments, especially if the US President turns the screw on the Chinese economy and if Xi continues to ‘invest’ in Africa, Pakistan or elsewhere, outside the Walls of the Middle Kingdom?
It is a serious question, though difficult to answer.
Further, it is bound to create ‘differences’ within the Communist leadership on the investment ‘priorities’ and ultimately jeopardize the ‘stability’ of the Kingdom …when the Emperor and his courtiers start fighting among themselves.

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