Chinese officials say trans-Himalayan railway connecting Tibet with India and Nepal is economically and technically feasible as Beijing looks to make Tibet an economic and cultural hub connecting China with South Asia.
“The construction of a railway crossing the Himalayan mountains is now economically and technologically feasible,” Zong Gang, Deputy Director of the Science and Technology Department at Beijing University of Technology, told a forum in Beijing run by the China Tibetology Research Center.
The Himalayan railway would start from Xigaze, a city in Tibet, run to Gyirong, a land port on the Chinese border, and extend into Nepal, although it would not be a high-speed railway, state-run China Daily quoted Chinese researchers as saying at the forum.
China built a railway running for more than 1,100 km to connect the highland region of Tibet with the rest of the country in 2006 and extended it to Xigaze with an additional 250-km rail link connecting the city to Tibetan provincial capital Lhasa.
China now mulls a rail link to Nepal and Yadong, a Tibetan county close to Sikkim border. Chinese officials say that in future it can be connected to India.
The daily today published a map with railway line linking Xigaze with Yadong and Burang, both closer to Indian borders in Sikkim and Uttarakhand, and Gyirong, bordering Nepal.
The altitude at Gyirong port is 2,800 meters above sea level, while the Gyirong mountain pass to Nepal lies at about 1,800 meters, making the railway geographically feasible, Zong said.
In contrast, Lhasa where China has built a railway network is about 3,700 meters above sea level and the altitude at Xigaze is about 3,800 meters.
The rail line extension between Xigaze and Nepal border was agreed this year during the visit of pro-China former prime minister K P Sharma Oli, who signed transit treaty with China in a bid to reduce landlocked Nepal’s dependence on India for supplies.
But the fall of the Oli government and the election of Pushpa Kamal Dahal alias Prachanda as new Prime Minister has raised anxieties in Beijing over the return of India’s influence in the Himalayan nation and the fate of a number of connectivity projects.
“Once Prachanda takes power, he is bound to rectify Oli’s pro-China tendency when in government and take India’s interests into account, as India is sour about losing its grip on Nepal,” according to an article in the state-run Global Times published on July 29.
“The fixed agreements between China and the Oli government are unlikely to be changed, or it will deal a heavy blow to bilateral ties, which is too much for the new government to bear,” it said.
“Friendly China-Nepal ties benefit the people of both countries, but that relationship may be affected by the possible lifting or resumption of an oil embargo India has imposed on Nepal, following the resignation Oli,” Wang Dehua, director of the state-run Institute for Southern and Central Asian Studies, told Global Times on July 26.
Besides rail and road links to Nepal, China strategically looks to extend the connectivity to India and South Asia.
Ma Jiali, a researcher at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, said a trans-Himalayan railway would be of great economic value as it could later connect China, the largest economy in Asia, with India, the continent’s third-largest economy.
He said that landlocked Nepal is willing to have a more convenient link to China because it believes that China’s development will offer great opportunities for Kathmandu.
Also China sees Tibet as cultural, economic and humanitarian hub to connect with India and other South Asian countries with Silk Road projects.
“With its beautiful thangka (Buddhist-themed paintings on cloth) and unique clothing, Tibetan culture is very attractive in the Himalayan region. Its influence can radiate through mountains and connect with other South Asian countries,” Lai Shanglong, chief economic commissioner of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, told the forum.
In June last year, China opened a new land route along Himalayan Nathu La Pass for Indian pilgrims to visit the holy sites of Mount Kailash and Lake Mansarovar in Tibet, considered sacred by Hindus and Buddhists.
Trade routes such as the Ancient Tea Horse Road have facilitated economic and cultural interaction for centuries, said Liu Zhifu, director of the South Asia Research Institute at Xizang Minzu University.
“There is huge demand for high-quality, authentic Tibetan goods, like incense and highland barley products,” said Di Fangyao, executive deputy director of the institute.
However, most of the trading goods are not made in Tibet.
“It’s high time that Tibet increase its exports of locally produced goods,” Di said.
Di also spoke of the importance of infrastructure.
The border trading market in Yadong county at the Sikkim border can open for only six months before the harsh winter sets in.