Friday, October 26, 2007

Growth spree across Nathula spells fear on Indian side

Army not pleased with Chinese activity

Gangtok, Oct. 25: China’s sudden investment and development spree in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) across the Sikkim border is more than meets the eye, the Indian Army has made it clear in a presentation.
Senior army officers believe that the development activity in TAR, which includes the construction of five highways, four airports and a railway link from Quinghai to Shigatse, is much more than what is needed to cater to the 27 lakh people residing there. Singatse is 300km from Yatung, the town nearest to the border.
Army sources said the rail tracks are likely to be extended to Yatung, 21km from the Sikkim border. The Gormud-Lhasa pipeline is also being extended and will cover more than 6,300km.
The army’s apprehensions were made public to a select group of journalists at a recently held interaction at Black Cat Institute, Burtuk, scarcely a kilometre from here.
A senior officer in charge of the border brigade, who described himself as a “soldier-diplomat” (the word was coined after the improvement in Sino-Indian relationship in the past one-year), had made the presentation. The officer said the growth spree implied activity in “the string of pearls” — the cluster of People’s Liberation Army bases encircling the region.
Border trade with China through Nathu-la — a pass in Sikkim at 14,000ft — resumed in June last year. The reopening of a trade link after 44 years— Nathu-la had closed down after the 1962 war — is generally preceded by development activity on both sides.
But what is worrying the Indians is the capacity of the Chinese infrastructure, which, according to army calculations, is 12 times more than what it needs to cater to the 7.5 lakh urban and 20.2 lakh rural population.
“Roads and bridges to nowhere are coming up. Around 16,700 tonnes of ration and goods can be supplied by road, rail, air and pipelines in one single day. It cannot just be for a population five times that of Sikkim’s,” the officer told The journalists.
Many of the newly built roads brush past areas close to the line of actual control. These include Shigatse, Gyantse, Yatung and Chumbi valley across Sikkim, all within 500km. Among them Yatung and Chumbi are the closest as they are located right across the border.
The roads are such that despite the elevation of 13,000ft, a distance of 280km — from Shigatse to Yatung — can be covered in three hours flat.
In comparison, the Indian side has one single-lane national highway (31A), which is often blocked with landslides. This, the army feels, is a great impediment. Not only that, there are no airports or rail links in Sikkim.