Tibet rail link opens: militarization, globalization —or both?

Tibet’s historic isolation is about to be radically broken, both by a new Lhasa-Beijing rail link (the world’s highest), and the opening of a new border crossing into India through Sikkim. Tibetan nationalist leader (and Dalai Lama nephew) Khedroob Thondup portrays the rail line as an artery for Tibet’s militarization, making the Himalayan realm a possible staging ground for a Chinese invasion of India. From Reuters, July 5:

A nephew of the Dalai Lama has likened a new railway linking China and Tibet to a second invasion of his homeland that will make its people “an endangered race”.

Chinese President Hu Jintao opened the world’s highest railway last Saturday, celebrating the first train to Tibet as a feat of national strength and ethnic harmony.

But critics say it will spur an influx of longterm Chinese migrants who will threaten Tibet’s cultural identity.

“This is the second invasion of Tibet,” said Khedroob Thondup, whose father is the Dalai Lama’s older brother. He regularly commutes between Taipei and Darjeeling in India.

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army has occupied Tibet since 1950.

Nine years later, the Himalayan region’s god-king, the Dalai Lama, fled to India after a failed uprising.

“Politically, China wants Tibetans to become a complete minority and to dilute Tibetan culture and identity,” said Khedroob, 54, who travelled frequently to China with his father in the 1990s for talks which dragged on for about a decade.

“Strategically, Tibet will become one of China’s biggest military zones primarily to combat the influence of India. This railroad will complement quick militarisation of Tibet.”

Khedroob insisted his views were personal, and not those of the Dalai Lama or the Tibetan government-in-exile, so as to avoid disrupting a new round of dialogue with China.

“They are going to send in a lot of settlers because of this railroad,” said Khedroob, a member of the Tibetan parliament in exile and president of the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre in India.

“It will harm the already fragile ecosystem of Tibet.”

The first train from Beijing to Lhasa arrived on Monday after a 48-hour, 4,000km journey.

“This is one-way traffic. Tibetans will never go and settle in China,” said Khedroob.

“The Chinese claim to have spent $US3.2 billion ($A4.3 billion) on the railroad which surpasses the total budget for education and health care in Tibet in the last 50 years,” Khedroob said.

China’s official Xinhua news agency said the railway that took five years to build could double Tibet’s tourist revenues by 2010 and slash transport costs to the region, lifting its 2.8 million people out of isolation.

Khedroob Thondup is shrewdly playing to the fears of his Indian hosts, who are in danger of betraying the Tibetan exiles in the new rapprochement with China.

Meanwhile, BBC July 4 portrays the re-opening of the old Silk Road land link between China and India through Sikkim as a boon for globalism and regional integration:

India and China are due to reopen their land border this week, for the first time since an intense frontier war more than 40 years ago. This political breakthrough comes as both countries race to become the economic giants of the world in the next few decades.

BBC diplomatic correspondent James Robbins has been travelling in both India and China to assess the scale of the challenge they face and the impact their rise will have on all of our lives. He starts a series of special reports for the BBC News website with exclusive access to the border in India’s Sikkim state, still a restricted military zone.

Above the clouds, we followed a trail on the old Silk Road high into the Himalayas. We were in India’s Sikkim state heading towards China on a road which, until now, led only to a dead end.

At 14,500 feet (over 4,400 metres) we reached the Indian side of the border with China.

It has been sealed since 1962, when there was a fierce border war here, with Indian and Chinese infantry backed by heavy artillery fighting each other and against altitude sickness over each disputed ridge.

Now the entire ridge is fortified. It looks like another Wall of China – a small wall, rather than a great one, but fearsome nonetheless.

A Chinese soldier looks down on us. He is understandably curious.

After weeks of tough negotiations with the Indian authorities, we were the first foreign TV team to be allowed up here as a “cold war” across the Himalayas draws to a close.


Between the Indian and Chinese fortifications is strung a simple barbed wire fence, more a marker than a real barrier now, but – make no mistake – no-one is allowed to cross.

Except, that is, Ye Ling, China’s postman, and his Indian counterpart, Mr Thaman.

On a Sunday, we watched the Chinese postman as he was allowed through the wire to the Indian side on his once a week crossing.

On Thursdays it’s India’s turn to cross in the other direction.

Theirs is the only human contact which has been allowed for more than 40 years.

China’s postman himself has been crossing through the wire for 17 of those years.

He is escorted by a soldier of India’s 5th Grenadiers – part of a force of thousands strung out along this border.

Inside the border post mail is carefully unpacked under military scrutiny, ready for a bureaucratic ritual with India’s postman.

First they weigh and then sign for the precious letters, which are all that is traded across this remotest of borders.

“I ride up here on a horse,” Ye Ling told me.

“But in winter when there’s really thick snow, I have to clamber up by myself.”

Bridging the divide

Now the postman’s life is about to be made far easier – political breakthrough means a new Silk Road is being driven through this ridge.

Hacked out by hand a new world-changing relationship is being built, as Indian stonebreakers edge ever closer to the Chinese road gangs in yellow hard hats, just over the line dividing the two nations.

This back-breaking work is aimed at one thing:

On Thursday, the two countries intend to open the border for trade.

It’s just part of an explosion of business which means billions of dollars flowing to India and to China. It is the big story of our times.

Col Chauhan, commanding officer of Indian troops up here, tells me: “Basically to start with it’s going to be a border trade.

“Chinese yak skins in exchange for tea and some local Sikkim liquor. Initially it’s going to be largely symbolic, but later on the trade will start building up to a larger scale.”

So the two armies, India’s and China’s, are no longer disputing this border.

Instead, their governments are both pushing for huge shares of the world’s trade and wealth.

Together they are determined to build two giant economies in the world that will change all our lives.

We wish globalization and militarization were as mutually exclusive as the popular dogma assumes. But, as we have noted, China’s recent opening of an oil pipeline through restive Uighurstan (Xinkiang), immediately north of Tibet, may only enflame separatist sentiment. The rail line and Sikkim border opening should both be seen in the context of the Great Game for control of Central Asia, and China’s desire to assert its interests in a field which has largely been dominated by Anglo-American and Russian imperialism. The wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya are really a part of this continental struggle. We hope that Tibet and Xinkiang won’t be next.

See our last posts on China, Tibet, Xinkiang and the Sikkim border dispute.