China's latest Military Buildup in Tibet: China’s Provocation does not end with just Cartographic Aggression
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 16 Apr , 2024


Amidst the thawing snows and the onset of spring in the Himalayan Border Region, the possibility of a military confrontation between India and China looms ominously. Since March, China’s expansive military buildup in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and the Tibetan areas has been disconcerting, marked by a rapid boost in troop size and military logistic infrastructure development.

China has significantly increased its military presence in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), including troop deployment and infrastructure development, posing a direct challenge to India’s security along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

This includes the upsurge in deploying thousands of newly recruited soldiers and officers from Mainland China into TAR and the Western Theater Command (WTC) as part of 2024 PLA’s Spring recruitment drive. Additionally, lately, China has urgently sped up the construction of its military infrastructure projects, notably the recent boost of 417 Key Roadways Projects for a logistic system based on three-dimensional transportation networks in TAR of Airports, Railway, and Roadway.

China’s aggressive move has been interpreted as a response towards India’s induction of 10,000 soldiers and the strategic infrastructure upgrade, especially the Sela Tunnel, in the border areas along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

Since 2017, Beijing has renamed a total of 62 different areas in Arunachal Pradesh as an integral part of the territorial jurisdiction of Southern Tibet “Zangnan”. Apart from dismissing such actions as a gimmick or illogical, India should study the likely future implications of such actions by China and take pre-emptive steps to dissuade the PLA. The 62 renamed places of sovereign Indian territories as being integral to so-called “South-Tibet” is part of the “Three Warfares” strategy to gradually build up domestic and international opinion of their extraterritorial claims. 

The current upsurge in militarization efforts by India has garnered significant attention, as covered by CNN and other foreign media “A high-altitude (Sela Tunnel) is the latest flashpoint in India-China border tensions”. It seems that such news does not highlight China’s ever-growing and non-stop construction of multiple strategic tunnels, bridges, and roads across the LAC with the like of the latest 417 Key Roadway construction announcement after March, which will fuel further disputes and threaten India’s security and sovereignty. 

China’s proactive role in exacerbating tensions along the borders with India extends beyond territorial renaming. By bolstering its military size and infrastructure development across highly sensitive border areas, China is indicating its potential aim to assert pressure and dominance on India and therefore strategically escalate the border conflict. 

Between March 16th and 31st, 2024, the Chinese PLA’s WTC initiated a substantial drive to induct newly recruited PLA soldiers, primarily from Mainland China. The newly recruited soldiers during PLA’s Spring recruitment of first half of 2024 were mobilized and transported into TAR, and Tibetan areas incorporated in Qinghai, Gansu, and Sichuan Provinces within WTC. Other Tibetan areas, specifically the Dechen (Diqing) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture also witnessed an influx of newly recruited soldiers.

In addition, China carried out the direct selection and recruitment of officers for the Tibet Military Region (TMR), targeting mainly fresh graduates with science and engineering backgrounds majoring in Hindi language, aircraft design and engineering, aircraft manufacturing engineering, aircraft power engineering, computer science and technology, network engineering and nursing, and other academic majors. The Chinese PLA’s recruitment targets depict China’s focus on bolstering military infrastructure construction, cyber operation, and linguistic capabilities, particularly across the LAC. 

China’s construction of 417 key roadway projects in TAR aims to enhance its logistical and transportation capabilities, particularly in response to India’s strategic infrastructure upgrades like the Sela Tunnel, heightening tensions along the border.

Assessing Tibetans presence and participation within the Chinese PLA stationed in TAR

A growing concern among defense analysts in India relates to the increasing number of Tibetans recruitment within the Chinese PLA’s forces following the violent 2020 Galwan Clashes.

Major areas within the WTC lie in the territory of the traditional areas of Tibet, which were occupied in the 1950s and subsumed into PRC as TAR (Outer Tibet) and Tibetan areas within Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan Province (Inner Tibet). Although Tibetan traditional areas constitute the largest area within WTC spanning across the whole of the Tibetan Plateau, there are only meager numbers of Tibetan soldiers inside the Chinese PLA.

Recent census data from the China Statistical Yearbook of 2021, recorded a total Tibetan population within the PRC as 7,060,731 people, mainly inhabiting the traditional areas of Tibet, constituting modern-day TAR (Outer Tibet) and Incorporated Tibetan areas (Inner Tibet) absorbed into the four neighboring Chinese provinces. Out of more than 7 million Tibetans, only 7487 Tibetans are recorded as being active servicemen in the PLA, according to China’s Seventh National Census in 2020.

Since the Chinese PLA’s annexation and its subsequent occupation of Tibet in the 1950s, Tibetans continuously have been at the worst end of systemic repression, leading to a reluctance among Tibetan youth to enlist in the army. The declining number of applicants for military conscription in TAR indicates the lack of support for an army that had stolen and deprived Tibetans of their freedom and sovereignty. 

In 2018, there was a total of 6,697 people applying for military conscription from the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Since then, the number of applicants from TAR for military conscription has shown a declining trend, with the decreasing numbers to 5,800 in 2020, declining to 3800 in 2021, and a slight increase to 4400 during 2022, as per local reports. Among the total permanent population of 3,648,100 in TAR as per the Seventh Chinese Census in 2020, there were 443,370 Han Chinese and 66,829 non-Tibetan ethnic Chinese.

Therefore, it is likely that Han Chinese and other ethnic groups mayconstitute a significant portion of the applicants during military conscription since there is a lack of Tibetan participation. 

Even Lhasa, the most populated city in TAR with a total permanent population of 867,891 people in 2020, had only 472 applicants during the spring 2022 military conscription. Not all 475 applicants are necessarily Tibetan, since Lhasa was recorded as the city with the most Han Chinese populations in 2020.

Despite claims of increasing Tibetan recruitment, the majority of soldiers and officers in the Tibet Military Region and Western Theater Command are Han Chinese or other non-Tibetan ethnic groups, indicating Tibetan reluctance to enlist due to historical repression.

Out of the total population in Lhasa, there were 233,083 Han-Chinese and 25,953 non-Tibetan ethnic groups permanently settled in the area. Similarly, Zhanda (Zanda) County bordering India’s Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, and Uttarakhand and the closest border county to New Delhi, witnessed only two Tibetan applicants for 2024 spring recruitment out of a total population of 8,454 people.

Contrary to the growing claims of increasing numbers of Tibetans within the PLA, the majority of the soldiers and officers within the Tibet Military Region and other WTC areas are Han Chinese or other non-Tibetan ethnic groups from Mainland China.

Recent Strategic Infrastructure Expansion: Massive 417 Key Roadway Construction Projects underway

The uptick in the deployment of the newly recruited soldiers in the TAR is supplemented by an intense infrastructural development plan intended to strengthen the Chinese PLA’s logistical and transportation capabilities. The recent unveiling of 417 Key roadway construction projects in TAR is strategically designed to bolster China’s military prowess, particularly in reaction to the construction of the Sela Tunnel near Eastern LAC Sectors by India.

On March 22, the Transportation Department of the TAR announced an extensive plan of 417 roadway construction projects scheduled for completion within this year. 

As per the official announcement, the key projects targeting TAR border areas of 2024 included:

    • G4218 Lhasa to Shigatse Airport section construction project.
    • G109 Golmud to Nagqu section quality improvement project.
    • Implementation of 281 administrative village access projects and the addition of 175 administrative villages to have access to hardened roads.
    • Major quality improvement projects of the G318 Highway including reconstruction of the Wada (Lengqu River) Section.
    • To start all projects within the “14th Five-Year Plan”

China’s military actions and infrastructure developments in TAR not only escalate tensions with India but also raise concerns about its broader geopolitical ambitions in South Asia, potentially leading to conflict.

In addition to the 417 Roadway construction projects, China has announced two other strategic infrastructure plans in recent months, which further significantly boost their transportation logistic network and military readiness. On February 1, the “Key Construction Project Plan for Region in 2024” issued by TAR’s Development and Reform Commission, unveiled 187 Key construction projects with a planned investment of 151.8 Billion Yuan. Earlier on January 11, TAR’s government announced an 80 billion yuan ($11.2 billion) investment plan to boost key infrastructure such as airports, railways, and highways in Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR).

Within the 80 Billion Yuan Investment, China executed three major roadway projects mainly on the India-china border, comprising the construction of the Metok (Medog) to Chayu (Zayu) section of National Highway G219, ;an upgrade and renovation of National Highway G318, ; and the opening of the entire Lhasa-Shigatse (Lashi) Expressway to traffic was proclaimed.

Concurrently, the prefectural level administration across TAR has also intensified infrastructure construction projects in recent months. For instance, in Ali Prefecture, bordering Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, and Uttarakhand State, 340 Key Construction Projects for 2024 with a 72.424 Billion Yuan total investment were recently announced.

According to the TAR’s governmental work report of 2024, the region’s border infrastructure, especially the road transportation network has undergone major upgrades, with 97% of Border Towns and 87% of Xiaokang Border Villages now having access to hardened roads. Earlier reports highlighted that by the end of 2023, a total of 123,00 Kilometers of roadway had been opened for traffic.

This massive roadway project marks a major progression towards realizing an extensive three-dimensional transportation network, with the nexus of Roadways, Railways, and Airports. Thereby linking every remote and border area of TAR with Mainland China and neighboring countries such as Nepal and Bhutan. This strategic design comes under the directives outlined in “The 14th Five-Year Plan for the National Economic and Social Development of the Tibet Autonomous Region, Outline of the plan and long-term goals for 2035” issued on January 24, 2021.

China’s warnings to India to avoid escalation while concurrently ramping up military presence and infrastructure reveal a duplicitous approach, undermining efforts to de-escalate border tensions.

As reiterated by Chinese officials, the main objective of the three-dimensional transportation network in TAR is to establish a modern military logistic system designed to ensure long-term stability and peace in the region. 


The recent clashes between India and China along LAC borders and the PLA Navy presence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), along with their strategic competition for geopolitical influence over South Asia, have increased the specter of a conflict between the two major powers in Asia.

China’s stern warning to India against escalating border tensions with the induction of 10,000 soldiers and strategic Sela Tunnel construction across the LAC constitutes a duplicity and hypocrisy in its behaviour.

Rather than de-escalating border tensions, China’s recent actions suggest the opposite. Its aggression against India does not end with the remaining areas of the sovereign Indian territories. Under the guise of disengagement and de-escalation, Beijing is rapidly bolstering its military power and strategic build-up in TAR with the recent deployment of fresh PLA recruits into TAR and ramping up its logistic infrastructures. 

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Tenzin Younten

is an Associate Researcher at the Center for Contemporary Studies in Security and Technology (CCSST). A strategic and Sino-centric researcher and an OSINT practitioner specializing in Chinese Military, Tibetan Studies, and Human Rights violations.

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