1 July 2006 was a red letter day for the people of Tibet. 6 July, a red letter day for the people of Sikkim. On Saturday, 1 July the first train from Golmud the gateway to Tibet from China's North Western Qinghai province chugged to Lhasa, 1142 kms away through one of the highest mountain systems in the World. Justly regarded as an engineering marvel, the railway line connected the fate of the people of Tibet interminably with China. It promises much progress and prosperity in its wake along with the bane of modernity, pollution and environmental degradation.
On 6 July the Nathu La, a pass on the Sino Indian border in the Indian state of Sikkim, opened for border trade between India and China after 44 years. Nathu La is a strategic outpost on the Silk Route which had been a prosperous pathway of commerce for the people of Sikkim as well as North Bengal before the 1962 Indo China War. The new era of transparency in relations between New Delhi and Beijing was slated to restore the primacy of this area in Sino Indian trade, with China likely to become India's largest trading partner in the coming years. This may take some years as presently the scope is restricted to border trade. Perhaps with removal of insecurities, on either side, it is anticipated that Kolkata will be a favored destination for commerce to and from China's Western region, restoring the erstwhile capital of British India to its pristine glory.
While there has been a long standing demand from the people of Sikkim for opening of the Silk Route, there was obviously no such pressure on the Chinese side. The opportunity has been created as part of the central policy of the Chinese government of shifting the focus of development to its largest region, the Western province which had been comparatively neglected over the years, thus hoping to prevent internal fissures through a policy of proactive development of infra structure and economy.
Sikkim and North Bengal as well as India overall will gain by these measures economically and hence Sikkim's Chief Minister Pawan Chamling had been lobbying hard for opening the Nathu La. The strategic gains made by China through these developments based on an agenda of economic engagement however need some consideration, not with a view to create insecurities but only to provide a perspective of what lies ahead in the highly dynamic field of international and regional power relations.
Chinese economic engagement neatly fits in with the need for, 'stabilizing the periphery' or what Deng Xiaoping has called, 'Wendingz bhoubian' as Mahendra Lama has recently brought out. While the Indian military view of acceleration of force mobilization and build up for any Trans border aggression by the Chinese through Tibet due to the railway line coming to Lhasa are well founded, a more significant issue is the underlying Chinese intent of balancing power with economic engagement. The train to Lhasa has placed at rest dying hopes of greater autonomy to Tibet. The Chinese have also accepted India's sovereignty over Sikkim, which was never in doubt as Beijing had been using it merely as a leverage for negotiations. This ipso facto does not imply in any way Chinese accommodation in other sectors of the vexed Sino Indian border as the continued negotiations during the recently concluded Eighth Round of talks between the Special Representatives of India and China, Mr. M K Narayanan, the National Security Advisor and Mr. Dai Bingguo, Vice Foreign Minister concluded on 27 June 2006 indicated.
By externalizing its internal agenda, China is stabilizing a possible restiveness in its Western region while extending the reach of its power beyond the national borders. Nathu La will lead to Kolkata, the closest warm water port to Lhasa. China has excellent relations with its South Eastern neighbors and is extending the Kunming highway to Bangkok as well as developing road links to Yangon, following up on the Second World War vintage, Stilwell road.
In the West, China had invested many decades ago in the Karakoram highway connecting Xinjiang with Pakistan. Reports indicate that the width of this Highway is being extended three times from 10 to 30 meters for which an agreement has just been concluded between Pakistan and China. Chinese engineers are developing the Gwadar ' Pasni port cum energy complex in Pakistan space. This will provide it a new warm water link at the edge of the Arabian Sea for trade with the Gulf States. Simultaneously it is developing oil and gas pipelines to Central Asia. Some strategic analysts have likened Chinese policy to acquiring a, 'string of pearls'. Thus what we have is a three pronged access to China's Western provinces, through Myanmar and Kolkata to the Bay of Bengal and through Gwadar to the Arabian Sea.
Chinese policy of assiduously cultivating Pakistan is well known. Pakistani nuclear scientists are even presently reported to be training in China, while it is supplying Pakistan JF-17 aircraft and F-22P frigates, gratefully acknowledged by President Musharraf recently. Myanmar and Bangladesh have demonstrated healthy respect for Chinese sensitivities if not down right obeisance. While the present trajectory of China's rise is peaceful, by linking its economic engagement with carefully calibrated power calculus in the long term, China is keeping its options open in the decades ahead. This is perhaps what is constantly rankling American leaders and analysts alike who tend to view China from a paranoid perspective. Given that China is the USA's largest trading partner, China's policy of balancing power concomitant with economic engagement is substantiated.