Dr. Bhaskar Koirala
Regional Expert, Nepal
In this context it would be germane to mention plans between India and Nepal to establish direct rail links that connect Raxaul in Bihar with Kathmandu and Nautanwa in Uttar Pradesh with Lumbini (the birth place of Lord Buddha) in Nepal. Currently there is only one railway track between the two countries linking Janakpur in Nepal with Jainagar in Bihar. The plans to connect Raxaul and Kathmandu by way of an 80 km rail link would also incorporate Birguni and Hetauda in Nepal which are important industrial and trading centers of Nepal, while the distance to be covered between Uttar Pradesh and Lumbini would be only about 25 kilometers (Das, 2004). This may be significant because during the recent visit of India Prime Minister Mon Mohan Singh to China, it will be recalled that India and China signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for cooperation and development of rail related programs between the two countries. The agreement includes programs of mutual interest, consultations, training and visits to each other’s facilities” (I Government Bureau, 2008). It seems there may be potential implications of this agreement for Nepal, not the least of which is the proposition that Nepal-as some analysts have already suggested-can serve as a transit state between India and China, and the other very promising tourism implication on account of Chinese, Indian, and international tourists or pilgrims deriving from the special Buddhist train, or Mahaparinirvan Express, launched last year by the Indian Railways (especially relevant given the great resurgence of Buddhism in China). So Nepal, perhaps as part of a wider SAARC effort for regional railway connectivity stitching together specific sites of Buddhist history and culture, and obviously as an over-arching measure to substantially enhance commercial and economic transactions, can at some point become integral to any relevant cooperation between Indian and Chinese Railways. Such an effort would be timely, as discussions will also soon commence between India and Nepal on the proposed expansion of the broad-gauge railway from Jogbani (in Bihar, India) to Biratnagar (in eastern Nepal), a short distance of some 8 kilometers (South Asian Media Net, 2008), while both official and unofficial discussions have continued to take place between Nepal and China on the Tibet railways extension to the border of Nepal itself.
According to media reports, Indian Railways is “keen on cooperation with its [China] counterpart for raising speed on existing routes, development of world class stations, heavy haul operations, and development of multimodal logistics parks and research and development”(iGovernment Bureau, 2008). China Railways has vast experience being the carrier of the highest volume of freight traffic in the world, and the substantial network expansion it has undertaken combined with impressive modernization and technological up-gradation seen in the last 10 years in the areas of signaling and telecommunications, traction supply, high axel load operation, design and maintenance and multimodal transport, makes it an invaluable resource for not only India but other relevant South Asian countries as well (ibid). With respect to railway extensions to take place between India and Nepal-and in the context of the Tibet railway’s expansion to the Nepal border in the near future-I believe Nepal should carefully study the recently inked MoU between India and China railways to understand how it may seek the assistance of its two neighbors, each with its own long history in railroad transportation, to develop its own railway system, initially in such a manner that will link China’s railway to India’s via Nepalese territory in a way that a solid foundational framework for Nepal railways can be established fairly soon upon which ancillary networks across Nepal can be built over time.
This will achieve a feat the vision for which dates back to 1885 or perhaps earlier to efforts and explorations of the British Royal Geographical Society for establishing a railway connection between India and China (Hallett, 1885).
There is no doubt the idea of such a connection would be still more intriguing and truly historic if its execution could be ensconced within the parameters of a China-SAARC cooperation for common prosperity initiative.
Cooperation in Infrastructure Development must be People-Focused:
A section of the commentary on existing infrastructure cooperation between China and specific South Asian states is cast in sort of global geo-strategic terms, but the problem with this line of approach is that it fails to address ways in which actual people on the ground may be positively ( or negatively) affected. Whether the overall sovereign interests of a particular state are achieved or enhanced by the development of infrastructure across two (or a group of) states is certainly a valid line of inquiry in real-politic terms, but the limitations of such traditional strategic assessments may be understood more clearly by identifying the deficiencies of an analysis that merely takes into account the interests of states per se. Positive results of cooperation between multiple states in infrastructure development have been witnessed very recently close to the South Asian region itself, with the inauguration on March 31 2008 of the spectacular “North-South Economic Corridor” that will connect by highway the southern Chinese city of Kunming to Bangkok in Thailand, spanning a distance of some 1800 kilometers. This highway and its ancillary network of roads that fed into it are “breaking the isolation of the thinly inhabited upper reaches of Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam, areas in recent decades [that] languished because of wars, ethnic rivalries and heroin trafficking” (Fuller, 2008). This highway will now provide further impetus to the increased trade between China and the Southeast Asian countries of Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand that has risen from $5.7 billion a decade ago to $53 billion in 2007 (ibid). The North- South Economic Corridor has been a remarkable Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) flagship program. In thinking about future joint infrastructure initiatives between China and South Asian states, we must recognize how this particular GMS program has benefited (and will continue to benefit) so many people on the ground as a result of other initiatives that have followed (and will follow) because of the way in which transportation has been dramatically enhanced. For example, consider the GMS program for improving telecommunications infrastructure in all six member countries; financing and laying down transmission lines in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam; programs for assistance in management, entrepreneurship, skills training, business development, production and marketing, and finance for small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs); and cooperative arrangements for addressing health issues (such as HIV/AIDS), education and labor sector issues (Sotharith, 2007), to mention just a few examples. The laying down of roads and railways that effectively connect a region no doubt creates a multiplier effect in the range of services, initiatives and opportunities they can bring in their wake that should not be underestimated in terms of how especially poor and less-advantaged people on the ground stand to benefit.
In South Asia, the inauguration in Pakistan in March 2007 of the Port of Gwadar, which was constructed with substantial Chinese investment, unfortunately attracted some skeptical and negative attention in the international media, with analysis focusing heavily on geo-political ramifications, yet the full benefits of the Gwadar Port to South Asia as a whole and to China (and even Central Asia) have not been sufficiently articulated in the context of promotion of common prosperity. As a matter of fact, the potential that Pakistan has seen in the Port all along dates back decades when geo-strategic constellations were perhaps in an entirely different order than they are today: in fact, it all started with the recommendation of Worth Condrick who was deputed by the US for survey of Balochistan coast in 1954. “Realizing [the] importance of Gwadar, Pakistan paid [approximately] Pound Sterling 3 million in September 1958 to buy back the enclave from the Sultanate of Oman ending over 200 years of Omani control. Since then the history of decision making process for its development has been that of studying, planning, shelving, restudying, re-planning and waiting and hoping for some outside aid agency to finance the project”(Daily Dawn, 2008). The Gwadar Port, of course, is located on the southwestern coast of Pakistan, close to the Strait of Hormuz through which passes 30% of the world’s daily oil supply at the intersection of the oil-rich Middle East, heavily populated South Asia and the resource laden region of Central Asia. The port is expected to generate billions of dollars of revenue and generate at least two million jobs, and it has spurred the development of other infrastructure projects such as the 700km Makran Costal Highway which has reduced travel time to Karachi from 48 hrs to 7 hrs and is expected to connect to Iran in the near future. Moreover, the Civil Aviation Authority of Pakistan has set aside 3000 acres of land for the Gwadar International Airport and the Pakistan government is also focusing on the laying of the Havelian-Kashghar (China) and Quetta-Kandhar (Afghanistan) railway tracks. It should be mentioned that Pakistan has declared Gwadar a “Special Economic Zone” where banks, hotels, factories, and warehouses will be established. There have been concerns about the exclusion of ethnic Baluchus in the course of these developments yet it cannot be realistically implied that the establishment of such important infrastructure in Baluchistan signifies this ethnic groups’ perpetual exclusion from the derivative benefits emerging from these massive (and varied) infrastructure works. In different ways and from different channels, the Port of Gwadar (as a joint project of China and Pakistan) will undoubtedly benefit countless numbers of people across the spectrum and most significantly perhaps those at the bottom rung of society.
The benefits of the Port of Gwadar to my own country, Nepal, especially to the northwestern parts of the country which are the most backward and poor, can be achieved by cooperation between Pakistan, China and Nepal, by way of the Karakoram Highway, via the Xinjiang-Tibet Highway and connecting by road to a number of districts such as Humla, Mugu, Dolpo and so on. This would inject massive stimuli to these destitute and marginalized areas in Nepal and thereby generate incredible transformations economically and socially. Moreover, connectivity to northwestern Nepal can simultaneously occur from India as well, so as to accelerate interaction between the Indian states of Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, western and northwestern Nepal, and the Tibet Autonomous Region, a proposition that is very much consistent with the notion of Nepal serving as a transit-point for rapidly expanding India-China trade. This sort of planning may even be augmented, supported or coordinated with the United Nations Economic and Social Commission’s ongoing work related to the Asian Highway project, the members of which include virtually all South Asian states with the exception of the Maldives. UNESCAP, SAARC, and China could think of ways in which to partner in this endeavor. This may also be one way of institutionalizing within the framework of China-SAARC relations, infrastructure cooperation to promote greater connectivity and common prosperity. It must be reiterated, however, that success in the achievement of a proposition such as this (which would help to uplift from poverty many thousands, even millions of people) requires a change in the mode of strategic assessment/planning by states that are accustomed to thinking more about (the safeguarding or promotion of) overall national power, sometimes at the expense unfortunately of people on the ground who would stand to benefit otherwise.