Guest Column

China’s Infrastructure Projects in Myanmar, Nepal and Tibet Threaten to Encircle India

By Jayanta Kalita 14 September 2021

On August 25, when the international media was busy covering the Afghan crisis, China quietly opened a strategic rail link through civil war-hit Myanmar to access the Indian Ocean. This is the first rail link between western China and the Indian Ocean and will significantly reduce the time needed to import cargo to China’s landlocked Yunnan Province.

If anything, the newly-created rail line is Beijing’s gift to Myanmar’s military regime as it is expected to provide a source of income for the latter. China has remained undaunted in its support for Myanmar’s coup leaders since the military takeover on February 1.

The trade route was opened exactly two months after China operationalized a fully-electrified high-speed train service between Tibet’s capital Lhasa and Nyingchi, a strategically-located border town opposite India’s Arunachal Pradesh State.

Last year, there were reports that China was doing the groundwork for a proposed railway line connecting Lhasa to Kathmandu, and then on to Lumbini close to the India-Nepal border.

These developments, seemingly unrelated, are all part of massive infrastructure projects that Beijing is planning in order encircle India strategically. Some of these projects are linked to China’s President Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a global connectivity project, but they nevertheless have significant security implications for New Delhi.

China and India – nuclear-armed neighbors – have been locked in a border standoff for more than a year now. The 3,488km disputed border, known as the Line of Actual Control, that runs east to west from India’s Arunachal Pradesh to Ladakh has remained hot since June 2020, when Chinese and Indian soldiers clashed in a violent brawl that left 24 troops dead.

Beijing claims Arunachal Pradesh as Chinese territory, referring to it as southern Tibet, in a tit-for-tat assertion against New Delhi offering shelter to the Tibetan spiritual leader, the 14th Dalai Lama, and allowing a Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamshala.

China’s new high-speed train link to a border town opposite Arunachal Pradesh is seen as a direct threat by Indian analysts. China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) used its newly-inaugurated bullet train to transport troops to a remote location in Tibet, according to a report by The Eurasian Times.

The significance of this railway project lies in the fact that President Xi Jinping travelled from the border town of Nyingchi to Lhasa by this train during his historic visit to Tibet in July this year.

While India has also ramped up border infrastructure such as roads, bridges and tunnels in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh, these regions lack railway connectivity. In 2014, Arunachal Pradesh joined the railway system, but the existing line caters only to the capital city.

Commenting on these developments, China analyst Kalpit A. Mankikar said, “Regarding the Myanmar project, it seems to be a trade-focused project, giving China its first road-rail transport link to Indian Ocean. This circumvents the need to use the Malacca Straits”.

“The newly-launched railway line from the Myanmar border will service the important commercial hub of Chengdu in western China,” the analyst told this writer.

“The development of rail infrastructure in Tibet is tied to Xi Jinping’s need for the PLA to be able to transport troops quickly to the restive region…Yes, it’s a cause of concern for India because improved rail infrastructure means that China has the edge in troop deployments there,” added Kalpit A. Mankikar, a Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation think tank.

If that were not enough, Beijing is also planning a railway track connecting the Nepalese capital Kathmandu with Shigatse in Tibet as part of the BRI. Under the plan, the proposed rail line could be further extended to Lumbini close to the India-Nepal border. Lumbini, the birthplace of the Lord Buddha, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The move seems to be aimed at boosting trade and tourism prospects for Nepal, while easing its reliance on India.

Long-term goals

Beijing sets its eyes on long-term strategic goals, unlike New Delhi, and it is pursuing them vigorously in India’s neighbourhood through trade diplomacy. Its latest targets are Nepal and Bangladesh, which have traditionally remained loyal to India. For instance, China has made efforts to boost its trade with Bangladesh which is now twice that of India – about US$10 billion annually.

Nepal, which is a signatory to the BRI, is drawing Chinese investment in sectors such as infrastructure and hydropower. China is the largest foreign investor in the Himalayan nation; it has pledged US$188 million for the 2020-21 fiscal year. China has maintained this position six years in a row, according to Xinhua, the Chinese news agency.

It’s worth mentioning that Beijing maintained close contacts with the Nepalese communists, who were ruling the country until a few months ago. It is believed China was instrumental in the merger of two Left-wing parties to form the Nepal Communist Party in 2018.

It’s another matter that Nepal’s communists are now in disarray after three and half years in power, due to an internal feud and then Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s loss of credibility. But the forthcoming elections could turn the tide in favour of the communists again, one faction or the other. And if that happens, China could once again try to reap benefits.

Giving what he calls a “broad picture” of the BRI, Professor Srikanth Kondapalli, a leading scholar in China studies, says the mega infrastructure initiative is based on five connectivity plans – policy coordination, physical infrastructure, trade promotion, internationalisation of the Chinese renminbi currency to counter the dominance of the US dollar, and people-to-people contacts [tourism, education, culture].

“This policy has been placed in the party [Communist Party of China] constitution, which means that this has become one of China’s long-term objectives,” the professor told this writer.

The “second broad picture”, according to Professor Kondapalli, is that last year China produced 800 million tons of steel by importing iron ore from countries like India, Australia, Brazil and South Africa. That amounts to almost half of all global steel production. China also produced 24,000 million tons of cement last year – which was almost 54 percent of global cement production.

“The country also produces six million graduates a year. Last year, China had eight million graduates and they all had to be employed. So China thought of the BRI as a panacea for all these issues,” added Professor Kondapalli, who teaches Chinese Studies at the Centre for East Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

The expert said that China’s BRI projects in Southeast Asian countries, including Myanmar, stem from its desire to utilize its own resources. The enormous quantity of cement and steel that China has produced will be used in infrastructure projects such as roads and railways, while those projects also open up employment opportunities for its new engineering graduates.

“China also plans to lay a 1,920 km railway line from Kunming in Yunnan Province to Yangon and this could be commissioned soon given China’s close ties with Myanmar’s military regime,” said Professor Kondapalli.

Jayanta Kalita is a senior journalist and author based in New Delhi. He writes on issues relating to India’s northeast and its immediate neighborhood. The views expressed are his own.