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China’s Planning on Border Infrastructure: Post 1996 CBM Period

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  • November 18, 2011
    Fellows' Seminar

    Chairperson: Shri Sheo Nandan Pandey
    Discussants: Shri Anil Kumar Gautam and Cdr Kamlesh Agnihotri

    1996 was a watershed year when agreements specifying the military CBMs were signed between India and China. The author argues that despite 14 rounds of talks held since then, India and China have achieved little in terms of common understanding on border settlement, as there is no mechanism yet on how to solve the border question. In addition, instances of border intrusions and incursions coupled with the military build-up on both sides suggest that the possibility of military conflict cannot be ruled out. Therefore, it is important for India to focus on understanding the objectives behind China’s infrastructure build-up in the border regions.

    The focus of the paper was on the following recent developments in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR):

    • Platforms for developing TAR
    • Stages of TAR’s development
    • Salient features of the development
    • Recent developments in defence, roads, aviation, hydropower, trade, tourism
    • China’s objectives: stated and unstated.

    Platforms for decision-making on Tibet include the Party Congress which decides on the broad frameworks followed by the Tibet Work Forums, Five Year Plans (FYP) and the Great Western Development Strategy (GWDS). So far 5 Tibet Work Forums (TWF) have taken place where important decisions relating to Tibet’s infrastructure were taken. The first decided on Tibet’s special status on taxes and development strategy. The second focussed on energy, communication and transportation development. The third forum has been the most crucial wherein infrastructure got more serious focus, the aid Tibet programme was launched and 62 projects including roads, communication, energy, water conservancy, urban infrastructure were undertaken. A total of 716 projects under Aid Tibet program were launched at the total investment of 8 billion RMB. The fourth forum aimed at “leapfrog development”, as TAR was included in the GWDS. This time around total investment was at 31.2 bn RMB as showcase infrastructure projects like QTR were undertaken. It was followed by the 11th FYP that also stressed on Tibet’s infrastructure; noteworthy projects such as the Galong La Tunnel and Motuo Highway were completed during this period. However, the author mentioned that there is lack of detailed information about this tunnel in the Chinese language literature. The Fifth TWF of January 2010 set ambitious growth targets for 2015. Some of these focus on social issues like income inequality and others on specific infrastructure projects. At the same time, it has long term targets of harmonious development in the TAR. Similar targets are part of the 12th FYP.

    Among the other issues highlighted by the paper are important developments in the defence infrastructure sector in the TAR and the objectives behind these. The author concludes that these activities undertaken by the Chinese reveal their objectives as being defence consolidation, strengthening administrative control, changing Tibetan lifestyle, controlling separatism and using trade as means to prosperity.

    A section of the paper also dwelt on the challenges faced in infrastructure development. These included climatic and topographic conditions, lack of basic facilities, all of which lead to higher costs of deployment of troops in addition to the problems of acclimatisation. The Chinese authorities are also unclear about how best to preserve Tibet’s fragile ecology.

    The paper provided some suggestions on how India should approach and respond to these developments.

    The main points of discussion and suggestions were as follows:

    • Some of the showcase defence technologies are much hyped about. J-20 is still a prototype and at least 12-15 years away from induction. Automated border sensor is also not possible technologically as yet. Therefore monitoring has to be physical.
    • It was suggested that more maps marking specific locations would make the argument more clear as far as major infrastructure projects like airports are concerned.
    • It was suggested that the author could focus on some specific border infrastructure instead of focussing on everything happening in Tibet for a more comprehensive analysis. Road-building must be studied further to know their sustainability under harsh weather conditions and capacity for withstanding tonnage to know how it helps militarily.
    • Projects should be categorised by size within FYPs and not mere numbers, so that their effectiveness can be assessed better. This would help bring clearer focus on distinguishing trade and security infrastructure.
    • There is a need to showcase if and why TAR infrastructure projects are unique and different from development work happening elsewhere in China. This can strengthen the argument from security perspective of India. Otherwise, its just economic development strategy.
    • More groundwork is needed on why 1996 is the watershed year. Otherwise 1981 and others also look as equally convincing landmarks in India China relations.

    Report prepared by Avinash Godbole, Research Assistant, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi