Monday, 30th October 2017

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Lesson from Mongolia

If Narendra Modi truly wanted a lesson on how to contain China, he should have travelled by a Trans-Mongolian Railway train on Saturday night after his well-attended diaspora speech in Shanghai and arrived in Ulan Bator instead of taking the easier and more comfortable option of a VVIP cabin on Air India One.

By K.P. Nayar
  • Published 17.05.15

May 16: If Narendra Modi truly wanted a lesson on how to contain China, he should have travelled by a Trans-Mongolian Railway train on Saturday night after his well-attended diaspora speech in Shanghai and arrived in Ulan Bator instead of taking the easier and more comfortable option of a VVIP cabin on Air India One.

If the Prime Minister had opted for this out-of-the-box train journey, he would have concluded his China visit at Erenhot, which is still a small town by present-day Chinese standards but whose population has grown phenomenally from just 8,000 in 1992 to almost 180,000 today: a testament to the Midas touch even in that country's remotest corners to the success of China's economic growth.

The downside to such an unconventional Modi itinerary would have been that at Erenhot, the Prime Minister would have been forced to sit out in his rail coupe for two to three hours.

Meanwhile, engineers of the Trans-Mongolian Railway would have hoisted his carriage, taken it off its wheels and placed it on a different set of wheels for entry into the architecturally eye-catching Zamyn-Uud train station, the entry point into Mongolia, and his onward journey to Ulan Bator.

This somewhat complicated exercise has been made necessary because Mongolia fears Chinese expansionism and domination of Asia in the new millennium. To guard against an attack from China, it has opted for "Russian gauge" train tracks, which are 1,520mm in dimension, as opposed to Chinese tracks, which are of 1435mm and are known as the "standard gauge", commonly used in many parts of the world.

The differential track size makes it impossible for China to send trainloads of the People's Liberation Army deep into Mongolia or to send reinforcements and supplies to its invasion force in the event that Beijing attacks or conspires to militarily control its smaller neighbour.

Mongolians, who are deeply nationalistic, have learnt their history. They remember the Chinese hordes that went across the border during the Korean war and brought about the armistice in 1953. They also remember China's invasion of Vietnam in 1979, which, Indians recall, forced Atal Bihari Vajpayee to cut short his visit to China in protest.

The Mongolians have taken concrete steps to guard against history repeating along their own border with China.

For Modi's national security team, which sees spooky shadows in the grant of e-visas to Chinese visitors by the Prime Minister on Friday and had declared in public recently that India should prepare for two wars - one of them with China - the first visit by an Indian head of government to Ulan Bator is a rare opportunity to learn firsthand how China can be contained through concrete action instead of speeches, op-ed articles and sound bites on television.

It is not at all known in India as Modi embarks on this historic trip to Ulan Bator that Mongolia has taken out insurance with India as part of its elaborate effort to contain Chinese influence not only in its backyard but across east Asia.

Mongolian intelligence has a secret agreement with the Research and Analysis Wing and the National Technical Research Organisation - which is directly under the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) - for forensic analysis of the entire raw cyber data traffic that goes across its border into China. The Mongolia-China crossing is a goldmine for such raw data given the lie of the land for global cyber traffic.

In the long run, this agreement is critical to preventing a possible cyber attack from China against Indian computer networks, especially national security networks including those of India's defence forces. The crucial agreement was finalised after China hacked computers in Manmohan Singh's PMO and other ultra-sensitive Indian establishments.

In a Modi government, where confusion reigns on everything from Dawood Ibrahim's whereabouts to flip-flops on foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail, it is to be hoped that the Prime Minister has been briefed well enough to be decisive on these secret arrangements of which there is restrictive knowledge even within the PMO, let alone the larger executive.

Otherwise, Modi's reaction - or any insensitive response from the Indian side during the expanded delegation-level talks on Sunday - to a request from Mongolia's top leadership for a crucial data analysis transponder with ground facilities within Mongolia can upset a potentially lucrative security cooperation arrangement that exists between New Delhi and Ulan Bator.

At present, the Japanese provide such data analysis for Mongolian needs, but Tokyo has refused to give Mongolia its own transponder with ground facilities. Hence the planned request tomorrow to Modi.

The Mongolians have taken planeloads of Indian Border Security Force personnel to their border with China so that the BSF can unobtrusively watch the way Chinese operate on international borders and be trained in sensitive border management.

Since there is no agreed border between India and China on large swathes of land - only disputed and shifting lines of actual control - such operations are difficult for the BSF on their own terrain. Besides, such BSF activity could provoke China because of sensitivities associated with the disputed border.

Mongolia, therefore, serves as an extremely valuable bridgehead in Sino-Indian border management. Modi's hosts on the defence side would like military cooperation between the two countries to be expanded further.

At present, in return for equipping BSF personnel in border management, Mongolia's own border personnel are trained in India in matters of customs, including the fight against smuggling.

One area in which both sides will push the envelope on Sunday relates to Mongolia's desire for nuclear cooperation with India. Modi is expected to announce a gift of Bhabhatron, the indigenous telecobalt machine for cancer treatment developed by the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Mumbai.

The gift will be for a high-profile charity headed by the wife of Chimediin Saikhanbileg, the Mongolian Prime Minister, which has done commendable work in treating cancer.

But Saikhanbileg is also expected to request Modi for a 100MW nuclear reactor for use in energy production as part of Mongolia's desire for nuclear power.

The US has turned down such a request from Ulan Bator. It will be a challenging call for Modi how to respond since Washington, with whom India has signed a complex nuclear deal, will be closely monitoring this aspect of Modi's talks on Sunday.

According to the final draft of the Prime Minister's itinerary, Modi's first call on landing in Ulan Bator will be on Lama Choijamts Demberel, the supreme leader of the Centre of All Mongolian Buddhists and the abbott of the Gandantegchinlen monastery.

There is much speculation if the Lama will serve Modi a breakfast of puri bhaji, dal, gulab jamun and his other favourite Indian dishes. Lama Choijamts Demberel studied Buddhist theology in Dharamshala, where he also learnt to cook Indian dishes.