Monday, February 14, 2011

China Railway Comes Closer, To India


Three months ago, I argued in an article that China's railway lines were inching towards the Indian border. The argument was of course based on reports of China's own plans to expand its railway network in the Tibet.

I also argued that towns like Tibetan towns like Nyangtri  (Nyingchi)  - which will eventually link to Lhasa - already boasted  swank airports. So, infrastructure investment had already flowed liberally into the region. The  railway line was following the initial thrust, not preceding, as would historically have been the case.

The Indian Express today reports with greater finality that China is to extend its Tibet railway network into the Chumbi valley area, next to Sikkim and the Siliguri corridor. The newspaper says the  China's Railway Ministry latest map shows lines extending from Lhasa to  Zangmu on the Nepal border, to eventually extend into Nepal and even Kathmandu. Another line will branch out midway at Shigatse, and end up at Yadong, which is on the other side of Sikkim.

Trading Places

As I pointed out earlier, there are sound economic benefits in this linkages for trade on both sides of the Indo-China border. Traders in Sikim have hoped that for years that a road or rail link with China via the Nathu La pass would accelerate trade. For Tibet, the port of Kolkata is closer than Tianjin (1,200 km versus 5,000 km).

India is also concerned about such developments from a strategic-defense perspective. Given history, that cannot and must not be ignored. The fact however remains that the region is in crying need of infrastructure. I recently travelled to Dibrugarh, in Assam, which is perhaps the largest, eastern-most town in India...incidentally, the longitudinal line that passes through Dibrugarh  touches Banda Aceh (1.5 hours ahead) in Indonesia down south.

I also drove from Jorhat to Dibrugarh on National Highway 37. One way of looking at it is that the infrastructure in this region is similar to most states in India. And why hope for anything better ? The other is to see China's moves on the other side of the border and use the economic, rather than the military rationale to change things.

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