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Monika Chansoria
GEOPOLITICS

Dr. Monika Chansoria is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.

China makes presence felt in Nepal

By means of Lhasa-Shigatse rail, China has inched much closer to Indian borders in Sikkim, Nepal and Bhutan.

Lhasa-Shigatse construction

hile Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears to have struck all the right chords in his speech to the Nepalese Constituent Assembly in Kathmandu, an ominously silent yet manifest factor that reverberated in many strategic minds was China, given its swarming presence in and around Nepal during the past few years.

For Beijing, Nepal serves two purposes, the direct upshot of which is its twofold Nepal strategy. One, closer ties and involvement in Nepal helps China to consolidate its control in Tibet. Nepal is home to nearly 20,000 Tibetan residents and refugees, having played host to these Tibetan exiles for decades. However, in the past few years, successive Nepalese governments have been subjected to extreme pressure from China in cracking down on Tibetans residing in Nepal, together with placing heavy restrictions on their movement, scrutinising their activities, placing them under arbitrary detention, and in many cases, making them return to mainland China forcibly. Crushing any/all "anti-China" activity by all possible means appears to have topped the agenda of Deputy Chairman of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, Wu Yingjie's Nepal visit in 2011. Besides, Beijing has provided Kathmandu with an $8 million military assistance package, with a primary mandate to focus on border security — so as to prevent Tibetan migration into Nepal.

The second strand of China's Nepal strategy is that Kathmandu forms an essential leg of China's overall calibration in South Asia, the most vital objective of which is to keep India's geo-strategic rise in check. By literally invading Nepal with direct investments in nearly every field ranging from military aid, roads and highway networks, infrastructure projects, telecommunications and hydroelectric power, the Chinese imprint in Nepal is far too evident to overlook. For that matter, Chinese direct investments in Nepal have just about doubled between 2007 and 2011.

Presently, China and Nepal have expedited work on upgrading and expansion of the Kathmandu Ring Road, the Tatopani Dry Port project and construction of the Upper Trishuli 3A Hydro Power Station, for which the Chinese government has provided a concessional loan. When Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited Nepal in 2012, improving connectivity, particularly through the land transport infrastructure was highlighted, the outcome of which is completion of the Prithivi and Arniko Highway, the Pokhara-Baglung Road and the Narayanghat-Gorkha Highway.

An upcoming announcement that shall set alarm bells ringing in India is the July 2014 reportage and discussion in state-controlled Chinese media on the Tibet railway line's extension from provincial capital Lhasa further up to Shigatse (Xigazê), the second-largest city in Tibet, located southwest of Lhasa. This rail line reportedly stands complete with ongoing trial runs and an official inauguration is expected any day now.

The Lhasa-Shigatse rail link is by far the largest infrastructure project in China's present 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015). Following more than a decade of planning and construction, this 258-km rail stretch will reduce a five-hour road journey to an almost two-hour trip by train. By means of this railway line, China has inched much closer to Indian borders in Sikkim, along with Nepal and Bhutan.

While Chinese dailies ran front page cover stories titled "Sky rail to run from Lhasa to South Tibet", a senior Chinese official at Tibet's railway office said that the Shigatse line would further be stretched hereafter towards the Nepalese and Indian borders, thus opening up "the south of Tibet". It is being speculated that China's 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020) includes construction of a railway line that will connect Shigatse with Gyirong county (close to Nepal), with a checkpoint that would connect Nepal and the Yatung county (near Sikkim). In the event of all these Chinese rail links reaching Indian and Nepalese borders, the Chinese military mobility and prospect for rapid troop deployment gets enhanced in a manifold and unprecedented manner.

More so, the most perilous link strategically would be the upcoming one from Lhasa to Nyingchi. Having wrapped up a feasibility study, China appears all set to begin construction on the 435-km Lhasa-Nyingchi railway line. Being located right above Arunachal Pradesh and closest point to the Indian border, Nyingchi is of immense strategic significance from an Indian standpoint.

That the Nepalese elite and beyond have often condemned India's hegemonic attitude is quite palpable. This equation has not brought any good for India, politically, or strategically, and to a large extent, remains liable for providing China the strategic space wherein Beijing has manoeuvred the Himalayan nation to suit the design of China's South Asian strategy, a reality that India needs to address without any further ado.

 
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