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Tibet: Connectivity, Capabilities and Consequences

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  • January 09, 2009
    Fellows' Seminar
    Only by Invitation
    1030 to 1300 hrs

    Chair: Arvind Gupta
    Discussants: Ravi Sawhney and Rahul K Bhonsle

    Since 1951, China had fueled massive economic investment in Tibet. In recent decades, infrastructure assumed the salience in China’s Tibet strategy, especially under its ‘Go West’ policy, launched by Jiang Zemin in 2000. The stated goal was to usher Tibet into an era of modernity and prosperity. The policy gained more urgent priority since 2003 when Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao showed greater commitment to make Tibet a part of China’s economic miracle. The 1,100 kilometer railway to Lhasa that cost $4.2 billion has symbolized China’s success in Tibet. Even the Indian Defence Minister Mr. A K Antony accepted the fact that there was no comparison of such development on the Indian side, when he visited a forward location in December 2007.

    In 2007, China’s State Council had approved 180 projects for Tibet that would cost over 770 billion yuan ($10.2) during the Eleventh Five Year Plan. Reports suggest that more than 77 percent projects have already commenced. According to the Tibet Autonomous Regional Development and Reform Commission, over 200 billion Yuan were spent during the year 2008.

    On October 14, 2008, Chinese military engineers and workers began digging a tunnel in Tibet’s Galung La Mountain in Nyingchi Prefecture to build the most difficult highway to China’s last road-less Medog County that borders Arunachal Pradesh. China’s state media prominently highlighted the significance of the 141 km long road connecting Medog with Tibet’s main East-West highway. The project will be completed by 2010.

    The great concern for India is the South-North Water Transfer Project (SNWTP), also known as the ‘Great Western Line’. The project is worth China’s $60 billion that aims to divert more than 40 billion cubic meters of water annually from China’s longest river, the Yangtze, and its tributaries through a tunnel under the Yellow River to northern China. The initial phase is expected to be ready by 2010. But a section of the route has already been used for meeting the water requirements during the Beijing Olympics. The initial two routes of the project will take water from the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze basin through the Yellow River to Beijing, Tianjin, and other booming cities in the north. The third route plans to divert waters from Tibet’s Yalong, Dadu and Jinsha rivers to the northern plains. The Brahmaputra project forms the second phase of the third route. The project was envisaged on the assumption that by 2030 the Yangtze basin will not have sufficient water for transfer to the north. The major concern here is: why is China going ahead with the SNWTP if there is inadequate water available for rerouting?

    The project’s aim is to divert the Tsangpo at the Shoumatan Point (the ‘Big U-turn’) for constructing the world’s largest hydroelectric plant at the knick-zone to generate 40,000 Megawatts of electricity, and for diverting 200 billion cubic meters of water annually to the arid north. The project will involve enormous engineering complexity on the scale of the Tibet railway system and the Three Gorges dam. Media reports also suggest China’s proposal to use nuclear explosives to blast a 15 kilometer tunnel at the U-turn.

    The great challenge for India regarding the project is that India has no water sharing treaty with China. China has rarely bothered to share information prior to flood situations. As a result India often becomes vulnerable to environmental threats. Also, there is no record of China consulting the lower riparian states before undertaking construction of dams upstream.

    As the economies of India and China grow, both are going to compete not only for oil and gas but also for water resources. One can conclude that China as the upstream state would treat water as a strategic commodity.

    Points raised during the Discussion

    • China is unwilling to discuss the issue with India at the bilateral level.
    • There is a need to discuss water diversion by China at the United Nations and the issue also needs to be brought before the International Court of Justice.
    • The potential impact on India of China blocking the Brahmaputra river needs to be examined.

    Prepared by Dr. M.Mahtab Alam Rizvi, Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.