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Confusing our frenemy with a genuine friend

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Chinese President Xi Jinping’s plans to open the Nathu la route for the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra is hardly a goodwill gesture. It offers few benefits to Indian pilgrims and only furthers Beijing’s expansionist plans

New Delhi is getting ready to receive Chinese President Xi Jinping on his maiden trip to India. It will, no doubt, be a significant visit, especially after Prime Minister Narendra Modi journeyed to Japan and met with old friend Shinzo Abe. Many looked at the Tokyo trip as a preparation for the Chinese President’s Delhi visit. The Global Times even threatened that India was getting close to Japan “at its own peril”. But ultimately, both India and China, keeping their own interests in mind, will probably find a consensus on economic and other issues, while some confidence building measures may be taken by the two neighbours.

The Press Trust of India has already reported about a ‘political gesture’ from Beijing. It said that the Chinese President may announce the opening of a new route, via Nathu la in Sikkim, for Indian pilgrims to go on the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra. The question is: Will this be a boon or a bane for India? According to PTI, the proposal has been under serious consideration in Beijing since Mr Modi, during his first meeting with President Xi in Brazil in July, asked Beijing to propose an alternative to the Lipulekh pass (in Pittoragarh district of Uttarakhand) for the yatra. Either Demchok in Ladakh or Shipki-la in Himachal Pradesh was expected to be the new port. It made sense in terms of access and comfort.

The present Ministry of External Affairs’ yatra through the Lipulekh-Purang route, also one of the traditional trade routes to Tibet, is often damaged by floods and subsequently the pilgrimage has to be canceled. Depending on the weather, every year the scheme accommodates a maximum of 1,000 pilgrims in 18 batches (selected through a lottery system); the pilgrimage involves a 22-day arduous journey. It appears that the Chinese have now decided to open Nathu la border point in Sikkim. PTI says: “The new route, though longer, takes pilgrims from Nathu La to Shigatse… [and] from there the pilgrims could comfortably travel to Mansarovar and Kailash using well laid out highway.”

It is obviously Beijing’s rationale, not New Delhi’s interest, though PTI adds: “It would be part of the big gesture of friendship not only to strike chord with Mr Modi but also the people at large, specially the Hindus and Buddhists considering its religious importance.” But is it a gesture of friendship or a decision driven by self-interest?

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has announced that lodging and boarding facilities for pilgrims have been improved with new hotels and additional beds with additional investments; Beijing further asserts: “Indians pilgrimage to Tibet is an important content of bilateral relations.” There is no doubt that China is interested in Sikkim (and Nathu-la), though despite the great hopes generated in 2006, when Nathu la was opened to petty trade between Yatung and Gangtok, business has been stagnating (partly due to the restricted list of items allowed to be traded).

More recently, on the occasion of the opening of the new railway sector Lhasa-Shigatse, Mr Yang Yulin, deputy director of Tibet’s railway office, announced that during the 13th Five Year Plan (2016 to 2020), the construction of a railway connecting Shigatse with Kyirong in northern Nepal and with Yatung, in the Chumbi Valley (near Nathu la) will start. Kyirong is obviously the logical extension of the line as China has extensively invested in this landport to make it the main link between Tibet and Kathmandu, (and economically invade Nepal). But why Yatung, near the Nathu la pass? Has Beijing consulted New Delhi on this or is it a unilateral decision? China is now going a step further. It is ready to let the yatris use Nathu la, as a second port of entry into Tibet.

A few months ago, Mr Wang Chunhuan, a professor at the Tibetan Academy of Social Sciences in Lhasa told The Global Times that the railway network in Tibet will play the role of a continental bridge in South Asia and promote economic and cultural exchanges with the subcontinent. For China, the Yatung-Nathu la-Gangtok route could become a trade gate to South Asia. But why should pilgrims take this extremely long route to visit the holy sites of western Tibet? One has just to look at a map to see it does not make much sense.

But there is more to the new railway development; the train has indeed another purpose. Beijing hopes that it will boost President Xi’s pet project, the New Silk Road, which he is bound to bring on the table with Mr Modi.

In September 2013 already, during a visit to Kazakhstan, the Chinese President spoke of the New Silk Road. A month later, during the Association of South East Asian Nations meet, he added a 21st century Maritime Silk Road plan. For Beijing, there are various ideological and economic reasons for re-opening these terrestrial and maritime routes. According to Xinhua, President Xi’s proposal of ‘one belt and one road’ brought “a new connotation for the old Silk Road, and new vibrancy for the cooperation among pan-Asia, Asia and Europe.” Beijing believes that the new strategy will help reproduce the spirit of the old route while promoting economic cooperation, cultural exchanges and friendly relationships. It may not be fully true, though it will certainly boost China’s energy prospects in Central Asia.

In New Delhi, Mr Xi is bound to play on India’s cultural fibre: Ages ago, Buddhism transited through this route. But while Beijing speaks of a link between the New Silk Road and South Asia, the Chinese leadership has systematically refused to re-open the old Tibet trade routes, such as Demchok in Ladakh, Kibithoo and Tuting in Arunachal Pradesh and the Mana pass in Uttarakhand. During Mr Modi’s recent visit to Jammu & Kashmir, the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council presented a memorandum to him, requesting the re-opening of the Demchok road as an alternative route to the Kailash  Mansarovar: “Demchok in Ladakh provides the easiest and the safest access to Kailash Mansarovar. From here, pilgrims can approach the holy mountain and the sacred lake in two days. This would also give the much needed fillip to the local economy.”

But it appears that Beijing has once again vetoed the project. Why then try to entice India into a New Silk Road project, when all the passes to Tibet and Xinjiang (the main traditional pass was the Karakoram pass, near the disputed Depsang plains) remain closed?

The logical step should be to progressively re-open the Himalayan passes to trade and human exchanges (and, why not to tourism?). Once the Himalayan belt has recovered its vitality, India may think of participating in projects such as the New Silk Road. For the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra, opening Shipki-la (already opened for petty trade) or Demchok will be a much shorter route and the pilgrims will travel in far greater comfort.

 
 
 
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