Chinese rail to Nepal and India’s concerns


By Claude Arpi

The arrival of the train from Lhasa to Shigatse, Tibet’s second largest city, along with the opening of the Kyirong landport between Tibet and Nepal, are bound to change the regional strategic balance. While both the railway line and the new port will undoubtedly give a tremendous boost to the bilateral relations between China and Nepal, it may also have other consequences for both nations …and India.

On April 11, the official China Tibet Online had announced that “The Kyirong Port in southwest China’s Tibet bordered with Nepal will be formally opened in October this year [2014].”

The same website reported that Kyirong port would be promoted as a tourist destination for mainland visitors. Knowing that more than one lakh Chinese tourists visited Nepal last year, the new port may be synonymous of a Chinese invasion of the former Himalayan kingdom.

The website, affiliated with Xinhua asserted: “The Kyirong Port enjoys a long history of being the largest land trading port between Tibet and Nepal.”

Chinese railLet us not forget that during the 1792 Tibet-Nepal War, the Manchus troops called by the Tibetan government to defeat the Gorkhas used Kyirong route to invade Nepal.

What will be the other consequences of the opening of a new port between Tibet and Nepal?

Economically, the new border infrastructure will undoubtedly benefit both sides of the border. On April 11, 2014, Dong Mingjun, vice-chairman of the Tibetan Autonomous Region’s (TAR) government told the media: “The Kyirong Port will serve as a link between China and the South Asian countries. It is expected to bring a big number of visitors into Tibet and boost its tourism.”

Can Kyirong really be a link between the Tibet and India?

Presently, it appears to be wishful-thinking on the part of the Tibetan officials. But there is no doubt that Chinese tourists and goods would be poured into Nepal through the Lhasa-Shigatse railway line and then through the highway between Shigatse and Kyirong (a branch of the highly-strategic G219 highway linking Tibet to Xinjiang, known in India as the Aksai Chin Road).

In August, the E-Kantipur reported: “Chinese arrivals to Nepal crossed the 100,000 mark last year reaching an all-time high of 113,173, largely due to improved air connectivity between Nepal and China. The figures released by the Tourism Ministry showed that air arrivals jumped 55.3 percent to 62,616 and overland travellers surged 44.7 percent to 50,557. Arrivals from China in 2012 amounted to 71,861 persons.”

Wu Chuntai, the Chinese Ambassador to Nepal recently announced that the number of Chinese tourists to Nepal would reach 250,000 within a couple of years.

For India, it could be a serious security issue, if several lakhs of Chinese tourists starts pouring into Nepal, will some of them be tempted to illegally cross the porous border with India? It is very much possible; it will have to be looked into by the Indian security agencies.

China too, has a problem.

The recent visit of Lobsang Gyaltsen, the Chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region’s (TAR) government to Kathmandu points to the Chinese anxieties.

According to the E-Kantipur, “Tibet region chief stressed better ties in security”.

The Nepali media calls him ‘Luo Sang Jiang Cun’, it is the Chinese way to spell Lobsang Gyalsten’s name! Imperialist powers always adapt the pronunciation of local names to the twists of their own tongue.

Gyaltsen (Mr. Luo, for the E-Kantipur) apparently urged Kathmandu “to put in place measures to curb ‘anti-China activities’ in Nepal.”

Leading a six-member ‘Tibetan’ delegation to Kathmandu, Gyaltsen met with Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs Bam Dev Gautam and Minister for Foreign Affairs Mahendra Bahadur Pandey.

What did they talk about?

“Bilateral issues including Tibetan assistance to bordering Nepali districts figured”, says the Nepali paper which notes that ‘Luo’ did not utter the word ‘refugee’ while speaking about his Tibetan countrymen who live in Nepal, but he repeatedly spoke of ‘anti-Chinese elements’.

Laxmi Prasad Dhakal, the spokesperson of the Home Ministry said that “he urged us to curb anti-China activities and take stern action against those involved in such activities.”

He sought a better coordination between security agencies on both sides of the international border to curb (Tibetan) activities.

Home Minister Bam Dev was quoted as saying: “The Chinese side seems worried about increasing criminal activities along the Nepal-China border”.

Why is Lobsang Gyalsten so obsessed with his countrymen activities in Nepal? It may be because of the forthcoming opening of Kyirong landport. One of the consequences of a new port is that it could facilitate the escape to Nepal of Tibetans resenting the Chinese rule. This makes Lhasa extremely nervous.

Gyaltsen told the Nepali ministers: “China doesn’t have any refugee as such [in Nepal]”, however he added that the Tibetans crossing the border into Nepal were doing it illegally.

The ministers politely assured the Tibetan leader that the Nepali soil would never be used against its neighbours, i.e. China.

Gyalsten, with his one-point agenda, also called on President Ram Baran Yadav, Prime Minister Sushil Koirala and Minister for Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation Dipak Chandra Amatya. He discussed “possible Tibetan assistance to 15 northern districts of Nepal.” A Foreign Ministry official said there are indications that from next year, the Tibetan government will expand the cooperation in this field.

The present cooperation is centered around security and the training of the Nepali border guards to catch the Tibetans who would try to escape Tibet.

Already in July 2010, a meeting termed ‘Nepal-China Border Security and Law Enforcement Talks’ was held in Kathmandu. Both sides had agreed to set up ‘focal points’ in the respective Home Ministries in Kathmandu and Beijing. A senior Nepali Government official had told The Kathmandu Post: “The Chinese side assured full support to enhance capacity building, training of Nepali security personnel to be deployed across the northern border, seeking Nepal’s full commitment on information sharing on anti-China activities to contain [them].”

In August 2011, an unnoticed development took place. Zhang Qingli, the then hardliner Party boss in Tibet, accompanied the Politburo Standing Committee member, the now disgraced Zhou Yongkang to Nepal. Zhou was then the supreme security czar of the Middle Kingdom.

A few months later, Chen Zhimin, the Chinese Vice-Minister of Public Security led a delegation to Nepal. According to the official communique issued after the visit: “The two sides exchanged views on cooperation of police affairs and law enforcement and reached consensus on some issues.”

The Nepali Press reported: “The Chinese offered ‘logistic support’ worth $300,000 dollars in the form of laptops, searchlights or metal detectors.”

As the date approach for the opening of Kyirong, Lhasa is more and more uneasy. The purpose of Gyaltsen’s visit to Kathmandu was to tell the Nepalis to watch out and not accept anymore ‘refugees’.

Lhasa is indeed nervous that Tibetans could cross the border and enter Nepal and then proceed to India (or worse stay in Nepal).

India should also watch carefully the afflux of Chinese tourists as it can turn out to be a serious security issue in the years to come.