China is on course to integrate the Tibet Autonomous Republic (TAR) into the global mainstream, with India and Nepal among the spurs that will connect it with South Asia.
In tune with President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road initiative, China has undertaken the Sichuan-Tibet railway project. This is an ambitious undertaking, which, once completed, will connect Lhasa with Chengdu, the booming capital of China’s Sichuan province.
The high elevation railway, passing through the stunning landscape of the Tibetan plateau, will branch out from the existing Lhasa-Shigatse rail line, which terminates at the doorstep of Nepal.
Heading towards eastern Tibet, from the junction at Xierong on the existing track, the first section of the Sichuan-Tibet railway will end at Bayi, 434 kilometres from Lhasa, in the strategic Nyingchi prefecture.
“According to the mid-to-long-term plan of the central government, we have built the Qinghai-Tibet railway, and in September last year completed the construction to Shigatse. We are now constructing the railway from Lhasa to Nyingchi,” says Ji Guogang, Director of TAR’s Development and Reform Commission.
China stresses that its bold enterprise is part of its western development plan to elevate the economies of its relatively backward regions. But looking beyond the developmental perspective, the Indian security establishment is focusing sharply on the project, for the Nyngchi prefecture is in close proximity to the disputed areas of Arunachal Pradesh.
The extension of the railway to Chengdu would be a game changer, for it would integrate Tibet with China’s transportation corridor to Europe.
Chengdu is located on the futuristic Yixinou Railway route, which connects China’s Pacific coast with Europe. In December last, the train from the coastal city of Yiwu passed through Chengdu, completing its record-breaking journey of 13,052 kilometres to Madrid.
That distance is larger than the span that separates the North and the South Poles.
Plans are also afoot to connect Nyngchi with Dali in the neighbouring Yunnan province. That step would also be path-breaking, for it would establish a link between Tibet with the proposed Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) economic corridor. Starting from Kunming, capital of the Yunnan province, the BCIM passes through Dali, before heading for Kolkata via Myanmar and Bangladesh. Indian officials say that Yunnan and West Bengal are emerging as BCIM’s twin growth engines, which exemplify the growing linkages between Chinese provinces and Indian States as the new drivers of Sino-Indian ties.
Chinese authorities are also backing this project on geopolitical considerations, for the BCIM corridor provides an alternative channel of trade and investment that bypasses the Malacca straits — an oceanic trade artery that is subject to Washington’s military domination.
The Chinese are proposing another rail link, which could revolutionise contact between TAR and India. Mr. Ji of the DRC revealed that the Chinese government is considering extending the Lhasa-Shigatse rail link to Yadong. In case that happens, it would establish a Chinese railhead in the Chumbi valley, only 31 kilometres away from the Nathu La pass that connects Tibet with Sikkim. The Nathu La pass is the channel for border trade, but Chinese officials say that Sikkim could become an important destination for investments and tourism as well.
Last month, China’s ambassador to India, Le Yusheng, told the visiting Indian media in Yadong that following his conversation with Chief Minister Pawan Chamling, Sikkim is expecting Chinese tourists, businesses and investments in the State. “I think all these issues will be discussed in the years to come at the local and the central level,” Mr. Le observed.
In Lhasa, TAR officials expressed optimism about the initiative. “In the near future a result will come out,” said Ge Sang, head of the foreign and overseas office, when asked to comment on the ambassador’s observations.
TAR officials were also upbeat about extending the Lhasa-Shigatse railway to Kathmandu, citing it as a pet project of China’s founding Chairman Mao Zedong. However, they did not comment on the possible extension of the track to Lumbini — the birthplace of Buddha — and Patna in India.
In parallel with the spurt in railway construction, Highway 318 provides a viable road link between Lhasa and Shanghai, passing through Chengdu along a stretch of 5,476 kilometres.
Flanked by the Lhasa river, a tributary of the Brahmaputra, called the Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet, the highway first heads towards the Mila pass, located at a jaw-dropping height of 16,543 feet. The Mila mountain, from which the pass derives its name, is also a watershed, for a steep descent from the pass opens out towards the fast-flowing Niyang river. Close to Linzhi airport of the Nyngchi prefecture, the Niyang merges into the Yarlung Tsangpo. The confluence is not far from the famed Great Bend of the river, from where the Brahmaputra, taking a U-turn, flows swiftly into India with great force. The steep drop of 3,000 metres over approximately 200 km provides an opportunity for massive, but controversial hydro-electric projects, involving China, India and Bangladesh.
The stretch of Highway 318 from Lhasa to Bayi, which is being rapidly upgraded to world standards, also provides a link to Yunnan. Passing through Mangkang County, the road links up with Highway 214, before snaking along a mountainous stretch to Kunming. Apart from the BCIM corridor, Kunming is also the gateway to Vietnam and Laos. Besides, it links TAR with the Association of the South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), for Kunming is the gateway to the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) grouping, whose membership includes Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and China’s Yunnan province.