Beijing-Delhi Express

The second round of the India-China Strategic Economic Dialogue, held in Delhi today, is expected to generate a preliminary agreement to explore Beijing's participation in the long overdue modernisation of Indian railways.

India is said to be considering three major areas for collaboration with China — the development of high-speed rail networks, expansion of heavy freight haulage and the upgrading of major train stations. In all these fields, India is a laggard and can help itself by opening the door to the new world leader, China. Beijing has the money, technology, expertise and experience to accelerate the transformation of Indian railways.

The rail sector, in fact, captures the story of the divergent developmental trajectories that Delhi and Beijing have pursued in the last few decades and explains why India has fallen behind China in so many areas. But is Delhi capable of grasping the counter-intuitive truth that the road to political parity with Beijing runs through deeper economic collaboration with Beijing?

At the turn of the 20th century, Chinese nationalists and communists understood the centrality of railways in the political unification and economic modernisation of the country. Few leaders of the Indian national movement matched the vision for railway development that the founder of modern China, Sun Yat-sen, had. Nearly a century ago, Sun Yat-sen, who took charge as the first president of the provisional Republic of China, outlined a blueprint for the building of 1,60,000 kilometres of rail network.

Mao Zedong, who established the People's Republic, understood the importance of railways in uniting the country and focused on expanding the rail network to western China. Deng Xiaoping and his successors have invested heavily in the expansion and modernisation of railways as part of their reconstruction of China after the Maoist era. Communist China, which had barely 27,000 km of rail routes in 1949, now has a network that is nearly 1,00,000 km. Much of the Chinese expansion has occurred in the last three decades. India, which inherited from the British nearly 54,000 km of network, has added just about 11,000 in the last six and a half decades.

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