The Chinese leadership is clever; much more than its Indian counterpart, at least as far as the defence budget is concerned. Let me explain. In China, large chunks of the expenditures for the border infrastructure development are taken care of by another budget, namely tourism.
The Tibetan Autonomous Region received 20 million Chinese tourists in 2015. Qinghai Province (the most picturesque parts are inhabited by Tibetans) welcomed 23 million visitors. If one adds the Tibetan areas in Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces, the number of Chinese visiting the plateau probably reaches around 60 million.
At least three issues explain the infrastructure frenzy in Tibet: The tourism boom, the (in)stability of the restive region and more importantly for India, ‘guarding the border’. Today, China loves Tibet; the Roof of the World has become the new paradise for mainlanders frustrated with the pollution at home. But tourism has also become the pretext for hurriedly constructing roads and airports – leading to India.
According to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, in April 2015, Lhasa was one of the cities with the best air quality in China. The China Daily recently advertised the Roof of the World thus: “Tibet with its mystery is the spiritual Garden of Eden and is longed by travelers home and abroad. Only by stepping on the snowy plateau, can one be baptised by its splendor, culture, folklore, life, snow-mountains, saint mountains, sacred lakes, residences…”
China spends a lot of energy and money on the plateau, but gets quick bucks in return. With one stone, several birds are killed. That is why I am saying that Chinese are clever. Tourism brings tremendous revenues to the regional Government, but it also helps to ‘stabilise the plateau’. In the wake of the 2008 unrest in Tibet, Beijing remains nervous; how to deal with the restless Tibetans?
On 7th September, 2015, soon after the grandiose parade to mark the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan Autonomous Region foundation, Yu Zhengsheng, a member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo met a large number of representatives from the People’s Liberation Army and the People’s Armed Police Force posted in Tibet. Yu urged them “to crack down on separatist forces and be ready to fight a protracted battle against the 14th Dalai (Lama) clique.”
Another ‘bird’ killed by tourism is the defence budget. In 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping reiterated his theory about the ‘border areas’: “To govern a country, we must govern the borders, for governing the borders …we must first make Tibet stable.” By building infrastructure for tourism, not only can the PAPF reinforcements reach faster any spot of the plateau, but the PLA gets free tunnels, roads, pipelines or airports, as this infrastructure has dual use.
In April 2015, a joint statement from the PLA Air Force and General Administration of Civil Aviation announced the integration of both civilian and military airports, including joint maintenance of airport support facilities, joint flight safety support and joint airport management. The Lhasa Gonggar Airport in Tibet was one of the first two pilot PLA/civil airports in China to officially implement the ‘integration’. The circular further affirmed: “All the civil-military airports will conduct strengthened integration next year.”
But even before making official the ‘integration’, in fact the civilian infrastructure could be used by the PLA…which does not have to disburse a yuan from its budget for getting world-class infrastructure.
Reutersrecently reported that China is likely to announce a large rise in defence spending next month, “as the ruling Communist Party seeks to assuage the military’s unhappiness at sweeping reforms and as worries over the South China Sea and Taiwan weigh on Beijing.” The agency adds: “Military spending last year was budgeted to jump by 10.1 per cent, outpacing slowing, single-digit gross domestic product growth, and another double-digit rise looks set to be announced.”
One source told Reuters that a 30 per cent increase has been mooted by military circles; if one was to include the infrastructure on the Tibet plateau, it may reach this level, though it will not be shown thus.
In the meantime last Friday, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, Kiren Rijiju, presided over an infrastructure development meeting and reviewed the progress of various road sectors in west Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh. Rijiju, perhaps the only Minister in the Modi sarkar concerned with border areas, observed that the pre-requisite condition for development of any area depends on its road connectivity: “The progress in the various roads seems to be satisfactory, but it could be accelerated further,” he said.
The problem is that India has to depend on the Border Roads Organisation and various other Government bodies which, to put it mildly, do not have the resources and dynamism of the private sector.
Rijiju spoke of the beautification and promotion of tourism, but it is still a long and cumbersome process to visit many places in Arunachal or Ladakh, as many areas remain ‘restricted’. Incidentally, would it not be the best proof that Arunachal is an integral part of India, if Delhi was quick in granting permission to prospective visitors?
On the plateau, the Chinese leadership does not have all these prejudices; one can safely predict that the tourism growth will continue this year and new records will be broken. What will be the implications for India if 100 million visitors drop on the plateau in 2020? It will certainly bring new headaches to those responsible for India’s security.
One of the areas which will witness a new boom is western Tibet, particularly the area around Mount Kailash. Some 470,000 pilgrims visited the region in 2015; this figure represents a rise of more than 50 per cent from 2013. Beijing believes that tourism can bring a tremendous benefit to western Tibet.
Many historical places in Tibet near the Indian border of Uttarakhand, Himachal and Ladakh (for example, Tholing, Tsaparang, Rutok) are soon to be developed. In November 2014, Xinhua announced that Beijing had approved the plan for a Lhasa to Nyingchi section of the Sichuan-Tibet railway which will run 402 km from Nyingchi and join the Lhasa-Shigatse line. This will definitively help, if China decides to construct large hydropower projects, particularly in the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra. Other sections of the 1,629-kilometer Sichuan-Tibet railway between Chengdu and Lhasa will start in 2016. In 2020, the railway will also reach the Kyirong landport at the Nepal border; then Chinese tourists and goods will start pouring into Nepal via Shigatse. Nepal will also turn towards Tibet for the supply of essential commodities.
It is not only a question of being cleverer; the old mindset needs to change in India; unfortunately the Nehruvian approach (‘let the border areas remain unspoiled’) is still prevalent in many circles. Ecotourism can help these regions to develop, while remaining stunningly beautiful.
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