China will soon start construction of a new railway line in Tibet close to Arunachal Pradesh, even as another rail link bordering Sikkim is set to become operational next month, enhancing mobility of its military in the remote and strategic Himalayan region.
"Sky rail to run from Lhasa to South Tibet," state-run Global Times said in a front page report today, highlighting China's claims over Arunachal Pradesh with observations from Chinese analysts that the new rail network along the disputed border could act as a "bargaining chip" in the boundary negotiations with India.
The rail line connecting Tibet's provincial capital Lhasa with Xigaze close to the Indian border in Sikkim as well as Nepal and Bhutan which is currently under trials would become operational next month, the report said. Another railway line linking Lhasa to Nyingchi in the east is also expected to start construction soon, it said.
Nyingchi is located right on top of Arunachal Pradesh, the nearest area to the border. The railway expansion will connect, Nepal, Bhutan and India by 2020, the report said.
Yang Yulin, deputy director of the railway office of Tibet said during the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020) period, the construction of a railway connecting Shigatse with Gyirong county (close to Nepal), which has a checkpoint connecting Nepal and Yatung county (close to Indian border near Sikkim and Bhutan), a trade centre bordering India and Bhutan, will start.
The rail link between Lhasa and Shigatse, the home of pro-Beijing Panchan Lama, stated to be second important Monk in Tibetan hierarchy is an extension of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway that runs from Xining, Qinghai Province to Lhasa. It will include 13 stations with altitudes ranging from 3,600 to 4,000 metres.
The trains are expected to run on the extension line at a speed of 120 kilometres per hour. It is the largest infrastructure project during the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) with an investment of more than 10.8 billion yuan ($1.7 billion), Yang said.
Significantly, the Global Times, the ruling Communist Party of China-run tabloid which often strikes nationalistic postures highlighted Beijing's claims over the area in the write up on the new rail network close to the Indian borders.
"According to the Chinese foreign ministry, there are a total of 125,000 square km of disputed area between China and India, of which, 90,000 square km are in the South Tibet region, known as 'Arunachal Pradesh' in India," the report said.
As per India's stand, the border covered over 4000 km along Line Actual Control (LAC) which included Aksai Chin, the area China took control of during the 1962 war. China states that the dispute is confined to 2000 km, mainly of Arunachal Pradesh. India and China have held 17 rounds of talks by Special Representatives to resolve the boundary dispute.
The issue also figured in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's first meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the BRICS Summit in Brazil, earlier this month. Liu Zongyi, an expert of Indian studies with the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, told the daily that Indian authorities would certainly care about the operation of the Lhasa-Shigatse Railway that is very close to the disputed area.
"The Indians have lately been working on adding infrastructure in the South Tibet region, in order to strengthen control. They have been sensitive to how the Chinese government moves in the south western area of Tibet," Liu said.
"Arunachal Pradesh was put on India's railway map in April, 2014, though of 27 roads India planned to build in the area, only one is finished so far," the report said about the poor infrastructure development along the border areas of region on the Indian side. Liu said that the "bargaining chips will be increased on the Chinese side if people in the South Tibet region see better economic development in southwestern Tibet".
The growing railway network will increase Chinese activities in this area, balancing Indian moves, he said. The railway, apart from boosting economic development, will contribute to solving border disputes between China and India in the South Tibet region, the report quoted observers as saying.
Wang Chunhuan, professor at the Tibetan Academy of Social Sciences in Lhasa, said the network will play the role of continental bridge in South Asia and promote economic and cultural exchanges.
She noted that the development of Shigatse is crucial to boosting development of western Tibetan areas which have been lagging behind.
"It will accelerate transportation of the mineral products, which could only be transmitted through highways that often risk being cut off during rainy seasons or see vehicle turnovers," Zhu Bin, a manager with a mineral company based in Lhasa, told state-run People's Daily.