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China will be ready. Will India be?

By Claude Arpi
October 06, 2006 13:54 IST
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In less than two years, Beijing will host the 29th Olympic Games.

Pierre de Coubertin, the French founder of the modern Games, had coined a motto for this important world event: 'It is less important to win than to take part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.'

It seems that the Chinese leadership has not yet grasped the full meaning of Courbertin's words: They believe that the only important thing is to win and smash others. Their public relation exercise has already begun.

Take, for example, the train to Lhasa: a publicity blitz projects the railway line from Golmud in Qinghai province to the capital of the Roof of the World as one of the greatest technological feats ever achieved. Journalists from all over the world were invited to cover the inauguration of the Chinese engineers' prowess.

Beijing also engaged the services of their self-nominated Panchen Lama (who is recognised only by the Chinese Communist Party) for this. In a rare appearance, the young monk, the symbol of Chinese power over Tibet, visited the railway station in Lhasa and repeated what he had been asked to say: 'It's apparent that the railway will promote the economic and social development of Tibet.'

Going around the station which has seen an average of 2,300 passengers each day since July 1, the Lama was supposedly ecstatic: 'It's very, very beautiful.' The railway was a link for national unity; and 'will help promote exchanges between Tibetans and other ethnic groups in China,' the official news agency Xinhua quoted him as saying.

But the reality is quite different.

The train will certainly not promote 'exchanges' between the Tibetans and the Chinese Hans, simply because it will be only one way traffic. Millions of Chinese Hans will be able to participate in former Chinese President Jiang Zemin's 'Go West' campaign, thus speeding up the radical demographic changes already taking place in the Tibetan plateau.

'The construction of railways to Urumqi and Kashgar in the western-most Xinjiang Autonomous Region was accompanied by a significant influx of Han Chinese migrants, as was the establishment of a railway to Golmud in the 1960s,' the London-based Tibetan Information Network reported a few years ago. The same pattern was earlier used in Inner Mongolia; it is bound to repeat itself in Tibet sooner or later.

Depending on which side of history one stands, it will either be 'national unity' or 'ethnic cleansing'.

This Chinese 'achievement' does not augur well for India.

It is a historical fact that one of the main reasons for the People's Liberation Army to withdraw in November 1962 after a one-month occupation of Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh was the serous unrest in Tibet at the time.

This has been documented by the late Panchen Lama, the highest Tibetan authority after the Dalai Lama's flight to India in 1959, in a 70,000 character petition to then Premier Zhou Enlai. It is politely called A Report on the sufferings of the masses in Tibet and other Tibetan regions and suggestions for future work to the central authorities

If Tibet's demography changes, there will be less cause for unrest, calculates Beijing. But the Chinese propaganda nevertheless asserts (and many Indian newspapers are ready to endorse the view) that China is India's friend. Are we not celebrating the Friendship Year in 2006?

The 'Chinese and the Indians share a lot of common ground,' Major General Zhu Chenghu, Commandant, College of Defence Studies, at the PLA's National Defence University, told some Indian journalists in Singapore recently. Even seen from the military angle, 'We have a long history. Both China and India are very ancient people. These two nations made very important contributions to the civilisation of the human kind... Both India and China have a desire to improve their relations and maintain stability across the border. China and India can contribute to maintaining peace and stability and promoting prosperity in the region -- not only on the periphery of these two countries.'

But stability at what or whose expense?

During Nepal Deputy Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli's visit to Lhasa last month, the Chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region announced that the newly-built Tibetan railway will be soon extended to the Nepal border.

Earlier, Yu Yungui, executive vice-commissioner in the administrative office of the Shigatse prefecture in the Tibet Autonomous Region announced that 'China's newly-built railway to Tibet will be extended some 270 km from Lhasa to the region's second largest city of Shigatse.' The work is to take three years. The city of Shigatse, located at an altitude of 3,800 metres, is the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama.

Should not alarm bells ring in Delhi's corridors of power?

Another piece of news should also have triggered concern: a German Google Earth user spotted a military base in China's northern plains. The free satellite imagery software had shown a startlingly accurate scale model of the disputed Sino-Indian border in the Aksai Chin area of Ladakh. The model is located 2,400 km away in Huangyangtan province. The military complex is said to be used for training and familiarisation of troops.

Whether Delhi consumes Chinese propaganda or not, it is a fact that training on a simulated Ladakh terrain is today still part of the PLA's training.

And then, one hears that the Chinese authorities are quietly building a dam in a remote part of western Tibet, very close to the Indian border (the Spiti sector). Satellite imagery shows that in the Zada gorge, the access point to Tsaparang (the capital of the ancient Guge kingdom) a dam is under construction.

Of course, Beijing has not informed Delhi about it.

Worse, the director of the Yellow River Water Conservancy Committee, Li Guoying, confirmed in August that China plans to divert Tibet's waters towards the mainland. 'The project was essential because the Yellow River's current flow is being exhausted by development demands in western China,' he declared.

Reuters wrote: 'China's quest to rewrite its future through vast engineering feats could test new limits as Beijing prepares a controversial scheme to divert water from Tibet to the parched Yellow River in the country's west.'

Li said: 'The Western Route of the South-North project will use a 300 kilometre-long relay of tunnels and channels to draw water from the Yalong, Dadu and Jinsha Rivers that flow into southwest China.'

Yalong is the Chinese name for the Brahmaputra. One does not need to elaborate.

But let us come back to the train.

For India, it has serious strategic implications for several reasons. First, it is clear that the Chinese are getting ready for any contingency, particularly if the 'border talks' fail. Their next logical step will probably be to close China's western railway loop and bring the train from Shigatse to Kashgar, cutting across disputed Aksai Chin. It will be the most serious threat to India's security since the Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai era.

It reminds me of a letter written by Nehru to his finance minister John Mathai in September 1949: 'Recent developments in China and Tibet indicate that the Chinese Communists are likely to invade Tibet sometime or other. This will not be very soon. But it may well take place within a year. The government structure of Tibet is feeble. A Lama hierarchy controls the whole country, the majority of whose population is very poor. Any effective attempt by the Chinese Communists can hardly be resisted. The result of all this is that we may have the Chinese or Tibetan Communists right up on our Assam, Bhutan and Sikkim border. That fact by itself does not frighten me.'

Presumably believing that the truth will prevail, nobody worries in India today.

The train will be the crucial factor to reinforce Chinese border defence. During the course of a stay in Lhasa in 2001, President Hu Jintao (who had an infamous posting in Tibet in the late 1980s) stated: 'With the passage of 50 extraordinary years, Tibet of today presents a scene of vitality and prosperity with economic growth, social progress and stability, ethnic solidarity and solid border defence.'

The train has been called 'the largest and one of the most unprofitable projects.'

But the Chinese are pragmatic; there is no question of their investing in 'unprofitable' projects. The main beneficiary is bound to be the PLA, which today faces huge costs in feeding and equipping hundreds of thousands of soldiers in Tibet.

Even if India decides to build similar roads or railway tracks to protect her borders, it would take at least eight to ten years to start work and perhaps as many years again to complete it.

In the meantime, Beijing's propaganda, including their concept of the 'peaceful rise of China', will continue to dominate the world media and lull India into a false sense of security.

In 2008, the Middle Kingdom will surely demonstrate its might during the Games. It will coincide with the traditional Olympics truce. But what will happen during the following years in case events do not follow Beijing's desired pattern?

One answer: China will be ready. Will India be?

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Claude Arpi