China has begun large-scale mining operations on its side of the disputed border with India in the Himalayas, where a huge trove of gold, silver and other minerals worth nearly US$60 billion has been found.
The mining project is being undertaken in Lhunze county under Chinese control, adjacent to the border of India’s northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, which is claimed by Beijing. The mining operations are being seen by India as part of China’s move to reclaim parts of Arunachal Pradesh, which the latter refers to as South Tibet.
The two countries fought a brief but bloody border war in the area in 1962.
“South Tibet” is a treasure-trove of minerals – with the area being the world’s top producer of lithium and China’s biggest reserve for 10 different metals.
The mining operations were first reported by a Hong Kong-based daily last month, soon after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping held an informal summit in Wuhan. The meet was significant as it followed last year’s 73-day military standoff at Doklam that took India-China ties to a new low.
Experts say the mining operations may lead to a situation akin to another South China Sea, and that China is rapidly building infrastructure in the ecologically fragile Himalayas – which stretch across India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, Bhutan and Nepal.
Beijing has defended its right to carry out large-scale mining, saying the area is “completely within China’s sovereign territory”.
Foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang told the media: “The area mentioned by the report totally belongs to China’s territory. China conducts regular geological and scientific research on its own territory.”
China also hoped India would not be provoked by the mining activities, according to a Press Trust of India report from Beijing.
The demographics of Lhunze county have apparently changed in the past year or so, with people pouring into the region following the mining activities. The unprecedented heavy investment by the Chinese government to build roads and other infrastructure in the area has made access easy.
Zheng Youye, a professor at the China University of Geosciences in Beijing, told a Hong Kong-based daily the new-found ores could tip the balance of power between China and India in the Himalayas.
“This is similar to what has happened in the South China Sea” where Beijing has asserted its claim to much of the contested waters by building artificial islands and increasing its naval activity, he said.
Geostrategist Brahma Chellaney has expressed concern at the ecological damage that the mining will result in.
“From its rush to mine gold in a border area captured from India to its frenzied dam-building on rivers flowing to other countries, China has gone into overdrive to appropriate natural resources in Tibet, rich in both water and minerals…Having depleted its own natural resources through an improvident style of economic growth, China is avariciously draining resources from the Tibetan Plateau,” Chellaney wrote in Hindustan Times.
India has, so far, not reacted to reports of the Chinese mining. India’s foreign minister Sushma Swaraj today (June 6) met her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on the margins of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) foreign ministers’ meet in Pretoria and discussed ways to boost bilateral ties.
Public policy expert Jansen Tham says there are three considerations to explain Beijing’s seemingly hardline position on continuing mining activities in Lhunze – evidenced by the reactionary statements from its foreign ministry.
First, the projected value of the minerals in Lhunze makes it lucrative for companies – often state-owned – to build the necessary mining infrastructure, the Diplomat reported.
Second, the perpetuation of mining in Lhunze can be attributed to Beijing’s desire to consolidate sovereignty over disputed border regions, and hence safeguard its national security vis-à-vis New Delhi.
The third consideration behind Beijing’s mining activities is the need for a regional balance of power in the Indian subcontinent.