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Quake in Sichuan: Humanitarian & Strategic Dimensions

The Government-owned “China Daily News” of May 13,2008, has reported as follows on the earth quake, which struck south-western China on the afternoon of May 12,2008 :

“The deadly earthquake that rocked southwestern China and felt all across the country and beyond, has killed more than 10,000 people by early Tuesday, and the death toll is expected to climb as rescue efforts are intensifying. The 7.8-magnitude tremor devastated a region of small cities and towns set amid steep and forestry hills northwestern of Sichuan provincial capital of Chengdu.

“Striking in mid-afternoon on Monday, it emptied office buildings across the country in Beijing and Shanghai and could be felt as far away as Vietnam and Thailand. The killer quake toppled buildings, schools and chemical plants, trapping unknown numbers in mounds of concrete, steel, wooden frames, bricks and earth in China’s worst earthquake in three decades. Roads to Wenchuan County, epicenter of the quake, were blocked by fallen rocks and debris. PLA army are sending heavy machinery to clear the roads. Sichuan provincial officials said more than one third of the buildings and houses in Wenchuan were leveled off. The casualties there remain unknown.

“Premier Wen Jiabao, heading a slew of government ministers and leading the overall rescue endeavoring, flew to Sichuan province Monday evening. Wen inspected a local hospital and a middle school in Juyuan town, where a three-story high school collapsed and up to 900 students were trapped in the rubble. Xinhua news agency said that more than 50 have been found dead. In Chengdu, the quake crashed telephone networks and hours later left parts of the city of 10 million in darkness.

“The quake was the deadliest since one in 1976 in the city of Tangshan east of Beijing that killed 240,000, the most devastating in modern history. A 1933 quake near where Monday’s struck killed at least 9,000, according to geologists. Monday’s quake occurred on a fault where South Asia pushes against the Eurasian land mass, smashing the Sichuan plain into mountains leading to the Tibetan highlands.

“In Chengdu, the region’s commercial center, the airport closed for seven hours, reopening only for emergency and a few outbound flights. A major railway line to the northeast was ruptured, stranding about 10,000 passengers, Xinhua said. Although most of the power had been restored by nightfall, phone and Internet service was spotty and some neighborhoods remained without power and water.

“Although initially measured at 7.8 magnitude, the US Geological Survey later revised its assessment of the quake to 7.9. Its depth — about 29 kilometres below the surface, according to the USGS — gave the tremor such wide impact, geologists said.The earthquake also rattled buildings in Beijing, causing evacuations of office towers. People ran screaming into the streets in other cities, where many residents said they had never felt an earthquake. In Beijing, where hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors are expected for the Olympics, stadiums, arenas and other venues for the games were unaffected.”

2. The quake has an immediate humanitarian dimension and as yet unpredictable strategic dimensions in the short and medium terms. The humanitarian dimension arises from the large number of fatalities and property damage caused by the quake. The estimates available till now are tentative and may go up considerably as more detailed information flows in as road and other lines of communications are restored.

3. The Wenchuan countty of the Sichuan province, which was the epicentre and suffered the greatest damage, had an estimated total population of about 110,000. About 10,000 of them are already reported to have been killed and about 30,000 are reported to be safe. The fate of the remaining 70,000 is as yet unknown.

4. The Chinese have a remarkable capability for disaster management with material and human resources for dealing effectively with a colossal tragedy of this nature. On tragic occasions like this, the Chinese population also rallies to the assistance of the humanitarian workers. This is already happening. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao flew to Sichuan immediately on hearing of the quake and has been personally supervising the relief work. Foreign humanitarian workers have had nothing but the higest praise for the manner in which the Chinese Government and humanitarian relief organisations have risen to the occasion.

5. The possible strategic dimensions arise from the fact that the Sichuan province, like India’s Punjab and Haryana, has traditionally been the granary of China contributing to its agricultural abundance. The Chinese call it the province of abundance. Any effect on agricultural production as a result of the quake could not only cause short-term difficulties for China, but could also have an impact on world food prices.

6. Another factor with important strategic dimension arises from the fact that many of China’s steel and defence—-particularly aero-space— industries are located in the province. The late Mao Zedong decided to locate them in the Sichuan province far away from the coast in order to ensure that they would not be vulnerable to military strikes by the US or Taiwan or both.The Sichuan Space Industry Corporation (SSIC) has over 30 research and design institutes and production enterprises located in the province with over 6,000 employees. Their products include systems associated with liquid-fuelled ballistic missiles, launch vehicles, and anti-ship missiles, as well as electronics, telecommunications systems and satellite ground stations.A number of China’s rockets (Long March rockets) and satellites had been launched from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center.

7. The aerospace and other defence-related industries in the province have played a very important role in China’s missile and other military supply relationships with Pakistan and Iran. In May,1998, when Pakistan faced some unspecified technical difficulties in carrying out its nuclear tests in response to the Indian tests, a team of Pakistani nuclear scientists flew to Chengdu to consult their Chinese counterparts on the technical problems faced by them. Research, development and production facilities for the JF-17 military aircraft being jointly produced by China and Pakistan are also located in the province.

8. In appreciation of the important role played by the Sichuan province in helping Pakistan acquire a missile capability, Pakistani leaders visiting China generally make it a point to visit the province. Pakistan has a consulate in Chengdu to cater to the consular needs of a large number of Pakistani military, nuclear and missile experts who keep visiting the province. During a visit to Chengdu, former Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz announced contribution of funds by the Pakistan Government to set up a Pakistan-China strategic studies centre in the Sichuan University.

9. It is not yet known whether any of the military and aero-space industries were damaged by the quake. There has been a reference to only damages suffered by chemical factories (missile propellants? ).

10.Sichuan is an important nerve centre for road,rail and air communications with Tibet. The Chengdu military region is responsible for maintaining internal security in Tibet and other Tibetan-inhabited areas and for the defence of China’s border with India. It has been preoccupied with maintaining law and order in the Tibetan-inhabited areas after the March uprising by the Tibetans. Since many of the PLA troops from the province are presently deployed to quell the Tibetan uprising, Beijing has rushed troops from other provinces to undertake disaster management.

11. It is not known whether road and rail links to Tibet have been affected. The “China Daily News” report cited above refers to the rupture of “a major railway line to the north-east”, but does not identify it. The massive Three Gorges dam with its huge water reservoir is located in the adjoining Hubei province which used to be part of the Sichuan province before it was bifurcated. There was opposition to the dam from foreign and even Chinese environmental groups on the ground that the dam would make an already quake-prone area even more prone. Their criticism was ignored by the Chinese authorities. This is likely to be revived now. The Chinese authorities have stated that neither the dam nor the newly-constructed Olympics infrastructure in Beijing has suffered any damage as a result of the quake or its after-effects. The International Olympics Committee may insist on an independent inspection of the Games infrastructure to satisfy itself that there has been no structural damage.

12. One has to await further information before assessing any strategic dimensions. (13-5-08)

(The writer, Mr.B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: )

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