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Understanding China’s disguised game plan

To settle the Sikkim border separately with China is not acceptable to Delhi as it would mean that India agrees that this part of the border is ‘different’ from the other sectors By Claude Arpi

A few weeks ago, the Chinese Ambassador to India, Luo Zhaohui, met with some Indian defence and diplomatic specialists in Delhi. In the course of his presentation, he said that the name of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) could be altered; it could become ‘CPIEC’, if India agrees to participate in the Pakistan leg of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In the same interaction, while speaking about the India-China border dispute, Luo mentioned a possible ‘early harvest’; he briefly uttered the name of Sikkim as a place which could ‘harvested’ first. In other words, to settle the Sikkim border before the rest of the boundary.This was intriguing, to say the least. A few weeks later, one can better grasp the contour of Luo’s thought. To settle the Sikkim border separately is certainly not acceptable to Delhi as it would mean that India agrees that this part of the border is ‘different’ from the other sectors such as Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh or Uttarakhand. India has always been opposed to a piecemeal solution. Further, why would India give Sikkim a special or different status?But apart from the legal aspect, there is an economic angle to the story, with China’s new-found obsession with belts, roads and corridors. Since a few years, the Chinese media has regularly carried reports that Beijing was keen to open its BRI to South Asian countries other than Pakistan. Where could such a corridor enter South Asia, if not in Sikkim? On June 11, a Tibet-South Asia Promotion meet for travel products was held in Lhasa; the theme was ‘crossing Himalaya, rambling paradise in the clouds’. China Tibet News, a Chinese website, says that more than 100 travel agencies from inside or outside Tibet took part.
What was the objective of the meeting? Today, it is difficult for China to find an opening in the Himalaya, first because the Dragon’s nervousness about the situation in Tibet, but also due to the tension with India on the frontiers. The website said that the event in Lhasa was organised to “show innovative ideas of product design on Tibet’s travel, strengthen exchanges and communications with fellow traders, branding… as well as expand upgrading of tourism product and profit space”.
Despite the usual ‘travel agency’ jargon, the question remains: How to have a ‘profit space’ between Tibet and South Asia? Apart from Nepal, Tibet has no tourism contact with any South Asian country; except for the Kailash-Mansarovar Yatra from Pittoragarh district in Uttarakhand and Nathu-la in Sikkim, there is no ‘tourist tour’ crossing over the Himalaya to Tibet or vice-versa.
During the meeting in Lhasa, recommendations were made for ‘outbound’ tourism products for Nepal, and other South Asian countries. It is there that the route via Chumbi Valley and Yatung (written Yadong by the Chinese) was mentioned. The ‘Yatung border tour’ aroused everybody’s interest, says the news agency affiliated to Xinhua.According to Qiao Zhifeng, Director General of Yatung Tourism, the county has rich touristic resources and the local Government has been keen to exploit them. Quio explained that a three-day tour from Lhasa-Yatung has become “a very mature travel route, it also has attracted a lot of self-driving tourists and group tourists”. He added: “At the same time, we will strive to improve the infrastructure construction to attract visitors from all over the world.” What does ‘improve the infrastructure’ mean? Simply to bring the railway line to Yatung! This is where it connects with Luo’s words.
Already, in July 2006, at the time of the opening Nathu-la pass for trade between India and China, Sun Yuxi, the then Chinese Ambassador in India, had told journalists that Beijing planned to extend its railway link from Lhasa to the newly-opened border points in India’s north-east (ie Yatung) and possibly link it to India’s east coast; Sun affirmed, “From Yatung, the Indian border area is only a few dozens of kilometres away. Then, anytime we feel the need we will link it. If the train got through all the way to Kolkata, that will be something. Lots of potential, opportunities will develop there.” Nobody took Sun seriously then. Last year, in an article in the China Daily, Ma Jiali, a researcher at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, explained that “a trans-Himalayan railway would be of great economic value as it could later connect China, the largest economy in Asia, with India, the continent’s third-largest economy”. Beijing seems decided to go ahead with the project of ‘connecting’ with India. But has Delhi been consulted beforehand? Obviously not.A recent article in the China Daily showed the train continuing its journey to Purang (Burang), near the tri-junction Nepal-Tibet-India and Yatung in the Chumbi Valley; it could reach Yatung between 2025 and 2030. Incidentally, a year ago, China Tibet Online published a photo feature with this caption: ‘Tibet border station [in Yatung] trains officers with a Basic Hindi Tutorial’.The website explained that “in order to provide better service, Tibet border station has set up a cultural exchange platform for its police officers… to enhance the operational capacity of the officers on duty [and] increase officers’ foreign language level”. Chinese Border Police and the Chinese Army are already being taught Hindi! But can trade or tourism alone justify the laying of a railway line to Yatung?Last year, India exported goods worth Rs63 crore and imported goods valued at Rs19 crore through Nathu-la. It could certainly be improved, but it does not rationalise a railway line. The raising of a Mountain Strike Corps on the Indian side of the border (in West Bengal) is certainly another reason for China to bring the train to the border. Incidentally, during the meet in Lhasa, Qiao Zhifeng announced that Beijing would soon build a cableway “in a customs relic site of the Qing Dynasty” and a glass skywalk in Dromo (Chumbi valley) forests.While Beijing plans to erect a memorial in the honour of the Manchus, it doesn’t mention the beautiful India House, which was the residence-cum-office of the Indian Trade Agent in Yatung till 1962, where Nehru stayed for two nights (on his way up and on his return from Bhutan) in 1958. The building has been destroyed by China in order to erase all traces of Indian presence in Tibet. However, India should question Beijing as to why such a historic site was razed, particularly when the Indian Agency was an asset of the Government of India.In the years to come, we are bound to hear more and more about Sikkim from Luo and the Chinese media. Ultimately, it is for India to decide if it is in its interests to selectively re-open one of its Himalayan border posts or not
The writer is a China expert an an author on India-China relations.

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