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Tibet: Can we trade across the Himalayas?

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By EMN Updated: Nov 04, 2013 11:09 pm
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Dr Namrata  Goswami

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]rading across the Himalayan belt has great potential for the spread of commerce, stability and better living conditions for populations inhabiting these areas.

In this, Tibet was the critical link in the ‘South Silk Road’ that spread across Yunnan, Nepal, India and Southeast Asia dating as far back as the third century BCE to the 14th century A.D. Commodities like tea, Himalayan salt, and yak fur and butter, were transported back and forth through backbreaking journeys across the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau. Today, Tibet is much better poised to build on these ancient linkages through its vastly improved communication infrastructure. China has built five operational airbases, approximately 58,000 kms of roads in Tibet, and the 1,956 kms Qinghai-Tibet railway. More railway links are under construction from Lhasa to Xigaze (Shigaste), which is located very close to the China-India border. This line should be completed by 2014. Building the railway line to Xigase has economic potential as this second largest Tibetan city lies very close to Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh (India), Bhutan and Nepal. This area also has tremendous tourism potential as Mount Everest rises from the Xigase prefecture.

The biggest linchpin of connectivity for trade is the Qinghai-Tibet railway, which runs through the picturesque Tibetan landscape, from Qinghai province to Lhasa. Tibet does not have much industrial capacity of its own and hence depends on mainland China for import of industrial and other manufacturing goods. In this, the railways play a vital role.
The other potential source of economic revenue is tourism. In the first half of 2013 itself, Tibet hosted nearly 3.43 million tourists. The revenue from tourism during this quarter rose by 32.4 percent grossing approximately US $517 million. Both economic linkages across the Himalayas and tourism offer tremendous opportunities to Tibet.
There could however be a damper to these developments in the light of growing tensions between China and India in their 1, 080 km disputed border in the eastern sector near Arunachal Pradesh. Both sides of the border have witnessed visible increases in military presence. This overt militarization is taking place within the political discourse of territorial claims and counterclaims. China claims 90,000 square kms of territory in the eastern sector; India views that territory as the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. These differences resulted in a border war between China and India in 1962, and continue to elude resolution.
Military exercises by the Chinese are becoming a regular feature in Tibet. In 2010, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) conducted its first ever ‘air to ground’ live ammunition drill in Tibet. Such exercises have continued since then. In July 2013, the Chinese air force conducted its high altitude flying exercises in Lhasa. Most significantly, such exercises were also conducted in the night in high altitudes. Last year, the PLA had conducted its first ever ‘ground to air’ military exercise in Tibet. The war game involved the fighter jets as well as assault and lift helicopters.
The Indian side of the border is also militarized today with massive troop presence which deters the free flow of trade. India also conducted a military exercise “Pralay” in Arunachal Pradesh in 2012 which involved the Eastern Air Command and the Eastern Command of the Army. Fighter jets as well as special ground forces took part in this military exercise.
This kind of military signaling creates distrust at the borders and damages trade. Military exercises act at cross purposes with both India’s “Look East” policy that aspires to open up Northeast India for trade with China and Southeast Asia, and China’s “Go West” policy that hopes to open up its poorer Southwestern provinces like Yunnan to Burma/Myanmar and Northeast India.
It is therefore rather critical that China and India establish a joint institutional mechanism on their disputed border for building trust. The future of the borderlands and their prosperity depends on that. Already, Tibet has attracted nearly US $ 894 million worth of investment from Chinese domestic and overseas companies in animal husbandry, tourism, urban infrastructure, and clean energy – demonstrating the enormous potential.
To spread the arc of prosperity across the Himalayas with Tibet as the connecting link is vindicated both by history and present realties. All it requires is a changed discourse especially amongst the governments to provide the necessary framework for such beneficial economic openings.
The writer is Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. The views expressed in this article are solely that of the author.

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By EMN Updated: Nov 04, 2013 11:09:23 pm