India and China in a cold Railway race in the Himalayan regions of Leh and Tibet

Are India and China heading towards a cold war over railways? Chinese expansions have shown New Delhi the way to lead into a post-modern war.

India and China have gradually wounded up for a very cold railway race to solidify their presence in Himalayan regions of Leh and Tibet, respectively. It is also a race to infrastructural arms that will have great impact on the Siliguri Corridor and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, in the foreseeable future.

In December, last year, India fast-tracked its plans for building the world’s highest railway track, the Bilaspur-Manali-Leh line. Concrete plans for it began in early September, as the ministry sought land from the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council. This happened barely months after the Chinese government announced the Sichuan Tibet Railway — its second Himalayan railway network to Tibet — in March 2016. The project, aimed at escalating Chinese migration and industry in the Tibet region, was tactically announced in the month of the Tibetan National Uprising Day (March 10), which was also the month of the Tibetan uprising of 2008.

World Highest Rail Bridge crossing over the River Chenab In Jammu & Kashmir in India

In 2017, as India battles icy spectres in its own backyard — Kashmir and Gorkhaland — it has begun tracking its hill regions. While China refurbishes its Silk Road nostalgia in various South Asian economic corridor initiatives, the railways are India’s stab at economic counter-militarisation in the Himalayas.

The Qinghai–Tibet railway line built by China – a link more a militarily oriented initiative than an economical viability factor which was built by China

Touted as a bid to facilitate tourism and commercial development in the Himachal and Kashmir regions, the 498-km-long Bilaspur-Leh railway network, rising to an altitude of 3,300 meters may be seen as a much-needed source of development in politically disturbed states of north India. However, the influence of China on the new developments in the Indian Railways, is hard to snub. Not simply due to the fact that the Bilaspur-Leh line will surpass China’s Qinghai-Tibet Railway (opened in 2006) — currently the world’s highest railway network — at a cost of about $350 million!

Economic militarisation

On June 27, railway minister Suresh Prabhu laid the foundation stone of the new broad gauge line at Leh. The Bilaspur-Leh railway network is recognised as one of the four strategic networks, touching upon the Indo-China border, by the Ministry of Defence.

In mid-May, this year, Nepal became a signatory to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI is China’s daring foreign policy of economic militarisation — the dream of President Xi Jinping. It was announced in late 2013. Since then, nearly 70 countries from Asia, Africa, West Asia and Europe have joined in.

Today, its Maritime Silk Road Initiative — which is meant to connect China to Southeast Asia, South Asia and Africa through a fast-network of roads, railways, ports and optic fiber lines — poses a strategic threat to India, especially in the Siliguri Corridor, courtesy the imminent political acquiescence of Nepal and Bhutan.

China’s attempts to inaugurate an embassy in Bhutan is a move to initiate its railway expansion through Bhutan, via West Bengal to Bangladesh. The Lhasa-Xigazê Railway is also slated to reach Kathmandu, via Tibet, and further south, close to the Sikkim border and Lumbini — too close for comfort for India.

The BRI comprises approximately 70 per cent of global population and Chinese money valued at $4 trillion. According to a World Bank estimate, Nepal may be in need of anything between $13 and $18 billion investment on its infrastructure to maintain its economic growth. This is where China — projected as the future universal donor in South and South East Asia — comes in.

Beijing’s “incursions” into South Asia do not end at Kathmandu. Bangladesh, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Myanmar have also fallen in line with the BRI policy. Political commentator, Wade Shepherd, describes this as a “romanticised rendering of the ancient Silk Road”.

Arguably, the roots of the brewing economic militaristic contest between China and India lie with the Pakistan-controlled territories of India, where Chinese investments aim to conjure in the messiah of industrial and technological development. Last month, citing reasons of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, India stayed away from Beijing’s BRI summit, attended by 120 countries.

Naturally, India stood out as the sole self-conscientious objector in the Belt initiatives, while itself being wounded inside a circuit of South Asian economic alliances.

India’s role for South Asia and itself

The context of a likely Indo-China railway war has been set in motion since Xi Jinping assumed office as the President of People’s Republic of China, in 2012. There have been allegations of Chinese troops crossing the Line of Actual Control, in 2013, 2014 (at the time of Xi’s India visit), and in each year until 2017. China has been aggressively non-committal at the United Nations Security Council, over proscribing Masood Azhar, the chief of the extremist outfit, Jaish-e-Mohammed. It has also voted against India’s full membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

Beijing must have been distraught over India’s permission to the Dalai Lama to enter the monastery town of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh earlier this April. Terming this as a “provocation”, Chinese foreign policy spokespersons “went ballistic, threatening India with dire consequences and asserting that India should remember that it is substantially weaker than China, both economically and militarily. Lecturing and criticising India on a number of foreign policy issues accompanied this”.

India’s role in South Asia is changing, dramatically. From being committed to the defence of a landlocked Nepal, to which it is also the largest seller of arms, to the Indian Military Training Team mission in Bhutan, which is in line with India’s policy of providing air defence to Bhutan and building strategic roadways, India has largely concentrated on a military infrastructure. Even the newly inaugurated Dhola-Sadiya bridge, connecting Assam and Arunachal Pradesh — India’s longest bridge — is more of a military asset than architectural or economic.

An aerial view of the newly inaugurated Dhola-Sadia bridge across River Brahmaputra in Assam

Tourism seems to be the buzzword for railway and bridge constructions in both the nations. In a cold race to this economic militarisation, it can only be desired that India does not fail to camouflage these developments as a domestic industry, rather than highlight them as a military expansion driven by foreign policy; such as what Kiren Rijiju, junior home minister said after the inauguration of the Dhola-Sadiya: “With China getting more and more aggressive, it is time we strengthened our physical infrastructure to defend our territory.”

The inevitable background — the conflict with Pakistan over Kashmir — is hard to be camouflaged, however. The reason for this is China’s prevailing interest in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, the Karakoram and the Siachen glacier. The latter is the destination for China’s most recently announced expedition, disguised as an exploration of climatic changes and biodiversity in the Tibet plateau.

Notwithstanding these provocations, India’s developmental strategy of railways in the Leh must not betray any sentiment of all its roads leading to Kashmir. Nor can it let sour its trade relations with China. Rather, its economic militarisation should first empower its own citizens and its neighboring nations — Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh — before they fall prey to Chinese infrastructure.

A very cold sun is setting on the desert frontiers Indo-China. Chinese expansions have shown India the way to lead into a post-modern war with a two hundred-year-old technology — the railways.

Can India’s railway expansions empower Nepal, Bhutan or Bangladesh with the same productivity in labour and technology that China promises?

If so, India can break the spell of taking in $500 worth imports for every $100 it exports to China — in the process being ensnared into the dragon’s lair.