Taking on China

India has much to learn from China’s astounding infrastructure building activity in strategic areas. The latest is Beijing’s repaving of a road linking its Xinjiang province with Tibet. This road runs through Aksai Chin, Indian territory that has been under Chinese occupation for over five decades.

The road was constructed in the 1950s and it was only after it was completed that India became aware of Chinese activity in Aksai Chin. Much handwringing followed in Delhi and then of course, came the 1962 war. Several decades on, little has changed in India’s approach to China’s border infrastructure building. We are still wringing our hands in fear. Our approach remains reactive and lethargic. While China is busy repaving old roads and building new ones, even constructing a rail network that is steadily approaching the Indian border, vast stretches of the border on the Indian side are fed by dirt tracks. Plans for border roads are gathering dust on the desks of Indian officials. More important, however, is our perception of the border. Our bureaucracy believes that improvement of roads and rails up to the Chinese border will facilitate a Chinese invasion or pave the way for Chinese goods flooding our markets.

Contrast this with the Chinese approach to border infrastructure. They see roads and rails as necessary to build the economy. In their calculation, a good road linking Xinjiang and Tibet is required to boost the economies of its isolated western regions and to improve connectivity with Tibet. China is also eyeing trade with India and sees the roads and rails as one day opening multiple land routes to India’s markets. While vision and an eye on the future defines China’s energetic approach to border infrastructure, India is hamstrung by memories of the past that are clouding its perception of the Himalayas.

Instead of griping over Chinese perfidy and its road building in Aksai Chin, India must learn from China’s border strategy. Hitherto we have allowed our insecurities to determine our thinking on border infrastructure. We need to build roads and rails to improve connectivity with our borderlands and to inject vibrancy in the economies of these regions. Besides, by building rail and road networks we will be able to send goods to markets in China. Getting angry with the Chinese for their road building in Aksai Chin or shedding tears over the loss of this region will get us nowhere. We need to learn the right lessons from Aksai Chin.

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