In the recent weeks, one question has often been raised by Indian think tanks: should India participate in the new trade routes initiated by China? Before answering, let us look at some facts. On January 17, something quite exciting happened: a freight train arrived at Barking, a suburban town east of London. The British media titled that it signalled a “new chapter in the history of the centuries-old trading route”. After travelling for 16 days, the East Wind train became the first direct freight train linking China and the UK. With 34 wagons, the train was carrying 68 containers loaded with household goods such as clothes, socks, suitcases, purses and wallets worth £4 million. This is not exciting in itself, but more remarkable, it had travelled 7,456 miles, the longest train journey in the world, said the British media. Nobody dared to question the viability of such a project, probably because it was part of the dream of President Xi Jinping; he has envisioned a mega “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) project to connect Asia (read China) with Europe and Africa via the ancient trading centres of Central Asia and Eastern Europe, a modern Silk Road.
Although only indirectly part of the OBOR, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has created a lot of thrill too, but mainly with India’s western neighbour. In April 2015, when Mr Xi arrived in Islamabad, he brought with him a munificent gift for Pakistan: An eye-popping $46 billion worth of planned energy and infrastructure investment to boost Pakistan’s flagging economy. This included 10,400 megawatts to Pakistan’s national grid through coal, nuclear and renewable energy projects. It sounded like a Chinese dream for the Pakistani leaders who marvelled at Beijing’s kindness. They may soon discover that Chinese generosity will first and foremost benefit Beijing, but it is another story! However, as the project crosses Indian territory in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir it is unacceptable for India, which has presently no say in the Chinese “initiative”, even though New Delhi has been invited to a conference on the subject in May in Beijing. The question remains: in these circumstances should India “participate” in the Chinese schemes?
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Mr Xi at the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, China, in September 2016, he raised the topics of terrorism originating from Pakistan as well as the CPEC project. He emphasised that New Delhi and Beijing must be sensitive to each other’s “strategic concerns”. But there is another aspect to the grandiose Chinese schemes; one has the tendency to forget that for centuries, India had traditional trade routes with Tibet, as well as Xinjiang and Central Asia. China is not ready today to implement what it is preaching; it pleads for globalisation, it wants to reopen ancient routes, but the traditional ones between India and Tibet or Xinjiang remain closed. And China is adamant about it. After Tibet was invaded by China in October 1950, the Himalayan passes fell progressively in disuse. An effort was made in 1954 to regulate the flow of people and goods through the “agreement on Trade and Intercourse between the Tibet region of China and India”, known as the Panchsheel Agreement, however China was not ready to implement it and the spirit of the accord eventually lapsed in 1962; the Five Principles had, in fact, the reverse effect; the trade stopped over the Himalaya.
The 1954 agreement stated: “Traders of both countries known to be customarily and specifically engaged in trade between Tibet region of China and India may continue to trade.” Although a number of trade marts were named, as China increased its physical grip on the plateau, the trade progressively became thinner, more complicated, the Chinese authorities started harassing the Indian traders until finally in 1962, the trade exchanges completely stopped. The entire Himalayan belt from the Karakoram Pass to eastern Arunachal had lived for centuries from the trade with Tibet. Is Beijing concerned about this? As the result of the 1962 border war and the non-renewal of the agreement earlier in the year, exchanges between Tibet and India came to an end (the closing of the Indian Consulate in Kashgar had killed the trade with Xinjiang and Central Asia, nine years earlier). It is only after the visit of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to China in December 1988 that a “Protocol for Resumption of Border Trade” was signed. In July 2006, Nathu La in Sikkim was added to Shipki La and Lipulekh Pass, which were opened in the 1990s. Although Nathu La is doing much better than the two others ports, trade remains rather limited while the rest of the Himalayan belt is hermetically closed.
Nawang Rigzin Jora, the Leh MLA admitted that it is China, which blocks the issue: “(China) may have their own reasons.” However he noted, “The safest route (to the Kailash via Demchok) is through Leh. You can fly to Leh, take one or two days to acclimatise and then drive up to Kailash Mansarovar.” Why not open Demchok? Ask the Chinese! While China is speaking of “soft borders” and “ancient trade routes”, Beijing is tightening its grip on the Himalaya: A new “Border Resident New Identity Card” (BRNIC) for people living near the Indian borders (as well as on the frontiers of Korea and Nepal) has been introduced. The BRNIC can be obtained online, its introduction will strengthen the Chinese control in the region . In the meantime, China has decided to pump $24.8 billion into laying new highways in Xinjiang region to improve connectivity with Pakistan.
Zhang Chunlin, director of the Xinjiang Development and Reform Commission recently stated, “Without the highways, oil, coal and agricultural products of Xinjiang cannot be shipped out of the region smoothly and logistics costs will remain high.” There is another aspect to it; China is planning a second highway linking Tibet to the restive Muslim province of Xinjiang. The new road will link the NH 219 cutting across western Tibet and Aksai Chin and the NH 315, running through southern Xinjiang to Xining in Qinghai province. It has serious strategic implications for India as a couple of roads branch off to the Indian border (to Purang at the trijunction between Tibet, Nepal and India in particular). Before discussing any Indian participation to the OBOR or the CPEC, the issue of reopening the Himalaya for trade and pilgrimage should come on the negotiating table.