More than four years ago the Chinese engineers unravelled a technological marvel when they completed the 1144-km-long Qinghai-Golmud-Tibet stretch of the Beijing-Lhasa rail link and the train service from the Chinese mainland to Tibet that began on July 1, 2006. In contrast, India will not be able to make the complete 345-km-long Jammu-Udhampur-Srinagar-Baramula railway line operational till 2017. China plans to extend the Tibet railway line to Nepal. Afghanistan too has been pressing China hard for linking the two countries through a transportation link via the Wakhan corridor. The Tibet rail network means that the Chinese will be able to amass large number of troops and war paraphernalia right on Indian borders in a matter of days. This is over and above the four airports that are fully operational in Tibet and a lot of military infrastructure that the Chinese are planning on the roof of the world. In contrast, Indian state of Sikkim which borders Tibet does not even have a single airport.
345-km-long Jammu-Udhampur-Srinagar-Baramula railway line: a long way to go
Now, China has unveiled plans to build a trans-Karakoram rail link to Pakistan through the Gilgit-Baltistan region which India considers as an integral part of the original Jammu and Kashmir that Pakistan has been illegally occupying for over six decades. The proposed 700-km-long railway line will link Kashgar in Xinjiang province to Havelian near Rawalpindi in northern Pakistan through the Khunjerab Pass. This will have huge military implications for India. New Delhi has expressed concern over the planned rail link between China and Pakistan through Gilgit-Baltistan and vowed to do its best to counter the new railway. "It is definitely a matter of concern," said Indian Minister of State for Defence M. M. Pallam Raju. "But we are taking our counter measures and we are doing our own preparation," he said without elaboration on what these planned measures are.
Chinese officials announced Beijing's plans to undertake a feasibility study for constructing the Gilgit-Baltistan rail link as well as "grand-fathering" two more nuclear reactors for Pakistan's Chashma atomic complex days before Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari's visit to China (July 6-11). A clearly rattled India dispatched National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon to China on July 3. However, Zardari's trip to China did not go as per the Pakistani script and Islamabad can blame it on Menon who exited the country hours before Zardari arrived there for his fifth China visit since he assumed office in September 2008.
After all the sound and fury on the proposed sale of two Chinese nuclear reactors for the Chashma plant, Beijing no longer appeared to be in a tearing hurry to sign on the dotted line. After Zardari's talks with his Chinese interlocutors, the Chinese foreign ministry chose not to confirm whether the agreement on nuclear reactors was in the pipeline. Instead, the Chinese foreign ministry chirpily talked of upcoming agreements in the areas of trade, education and public health. However, it is unlikely that China will go back on its declared commitment to Pakistan on the two nuclear reactors. Beijing will oblige Islamabad but not before wily Chinese diplomats extract their pound of flesh from Pakistan on a host of issues, particularly on more pro-active support from Pakistan on Chinese concerns on Uighur militants who have of late shifted their base to Pakistan.
Simultaneously, New Delhi also took a shrewd political move to send a signal to China. Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao went to Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh and met the Dalai Lama and top officials of his government in exile for over an hour on July 10. Expectedly, neither the Ministry of External Affairs nor the Dalai Lama's office gave an account of what the top Indian diplomat discussed with the Tibetans' highest religious figure whose vast political clout is unquestionable. Tibetan sources privately said the Dalai Lama's security arrangements in particular and the welfare of the Tibetan refugees in India came up for discussion at the meeting, which was also attended by Samdhong Rinpoche, Prime Minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile. India has conveyed a not-so-subtle message to China with Rao going all the way to Dharamsala for meeting the Dalai Lama.
The Chinese infrastructure build-up drive is an integral part of its "string of pearls" strategy vis a vis India. Three ports that China is building in India's immediate neighbourhood - Gwadar in Pakistan, Sittwe in Myanmar and Hambantota in Sri Lanka - are important pearls in the Chinese string. China has a vibrant presence across South Asia, even though it is not a South Asian power. Besides Pakistan, with which China has a true strategic partnership, Beijing has emerged as a major player in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and the Maldives. China has adopted a similar strategy in the Indian Ocean region as well. It has firmly entrenched itself in Myanmar (Burma), Mauritius and the Seychelles, even though it is not an Indian Ocean power.
It is with lightning pace that China is planning to expand its rail network to such far off places as Europe. China is in negotiations to extend its new high-speed rail network to 17 nations. It is also building a new Silk Road to India, Central and Southeast Asia, Russia and on to Europe. The main obstacles, however, are political. China has boundary issues with most of the countries that come under its plan.
The proposed network comprises three major arteries linking Kunming in China with Singapore via South Asia, Urumqi and Germany through Central Asia, and Heilongjiang with south-eastern Europe via Russia. The implications of such an undertaking are more than substantial for Eurasia. From expanded trade and economic development, to inter-regional and global integration on Beijing's terms, the revival of the old Silk Road by the "Middle Kingdom" entails far-reaching and controversial geopolitical ramifications, particularly for Central Asia.
On March 11, 2010 a spokesman for China's ministry of railways confirmed the network would consist of northern, southern and western routes. This will make a two-day trip from Beijing to London possible by 2025. The western route of the network will connect Xinjiang with Germany, through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey. The entire project is a part of China's Pan-Asian railway plan attempting to link 28 states with 81,000 kilometres of railroads (www.globaltimes.cn, March 12, 2010). China thus views the railway network as a tool to link Asian and European markets, tap into, and ensure efficient delivery of Central Asian energy resources, develop its western regions, advance regional security, and its global role.
China's growing influence in the backdrop of the region's imperial history is, however, viewed with great caution in Central Asian capitals. Relations between China, and in particular Kazakhstan, Central Asia's most crucial and resourceful country, have been tense during the last few months over what many Kazakhs view as "Chinese expansionism." In January 2010, hundreds of Kazakhs protested in Almaty over a Chinese proposal to rent 1 million hectares of farmland from Kazakhstan. China is a leading investor in oil-rich Kazakhstan. Last year, it lent $10 billion in credits in exchange for stakes in one of Kazakhstan's largest oil companies.
China sought to lease 1 million hectares of farmland for the cultivation of rapeseed and soya. But the Kazakh government made it clear that it did not intend to lease the land, but rather create a joint agricultural venture. There is concern that the proposed agricultural project could encourage the mass migration of Chinese people to Kazakhstan, as has happened in other parts of the world, particularly Africa, where China has made inroads in recent years.
China may be simply trying to secure oil and energy routes for its rapidly growing energy demands. It will take little time for China to use this kind of infrastructure tactically, and even militarily. The best way to deal with the situation is to follow the advice George W. Bush gave when he became U.S. president in 2000: "Engage China economically, counter China politically and militarily."
WHAT INDIA SHOULD DO?
Against the backdrop of China's infrastructural blitzkrieg, India needs to improve its border infrastructure on a war footing. For well over four decades since the 1962 India-China war, the Indian government had wilfully neglected the development of its border infrastructure for two reasons. One that the Chinese troops rather than the Indian military will take advantage of the improved infrastructure on the Indian side. Secondly, developing an upgraded infrastructure will entail huge maintenance costs for the Indian government which till recently it was averse to incurring. This is further accentuated by the fact that the Sino-India border has been marked by incursions and transgressions as the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between the two countries is not delineated and continues to be perception-based. The current perceptional basis of the border only leaves scope for undesirable exchange of cross-fire in future. The boundary issue has the potential of triggering a conflict in an event of any "judgmental miscalculation" between the two giant neighbours.
*The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist and commentator on strategic issues.