Dual Infrastructure in Tibet: A Threatening Scenario for India?
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Issue Book Excerpt: China: Threat or Challenge? | Date : 01 Apr , 2017

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The Historic Relations

The story started millions years ago when the Indian island collided with the Asian plate. Without this collision, life could have continued for eternity undisturbed on the Indian island, but it was neither the destiny of Tibet to remain a sea forever, nor the fate of India to be perpetually an island.

Thereafter, during the last two millennia, Tibet and India lived in close and harmonious contact.

During the period known as the First Propagation of the Buddha Dharma in Tibet (7th-8th century), many great Indian Masters such as Padmasambhava and Sankarakshita visited the Land of Snows; Buddhism became the state religion. The Second Propagation (10th-11th century), considered as the Renaissance in Tibet, came from India. The temples and gompas (monasteries) of Tholing and Tsaparang in Western Tibet (as well as Alchi and Tabo in the Indian Himalayas) are the remnants of an extraordinary outbreak of Buddhist Art, Literature, Architecture and Spirituality.

Armies were unnecessary on both sides of the Himalayan slopes.

With the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950 and the subsequent flight of the Dalai Lama to India in 1959, the economic and political relations between India and the plateau took another turn and at the end of October 1962, the ancient links were abruptly discontinued with radical consequences for India’s borders.

A Miracle in Road History

Soon after the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) entered Lhasa in September 1951, the Chinese started improving the infrastructure between China and Tibet and building new strategic roads on a war-footing.1

Mao Zedong knew that the only way to consolidate and ‘unify’ China’s new colonies (Tibet and Xinjiang) was to construct a large network of roads2. The work began immediately after the arrival of 18th Army in Lhasa in September 1951. Priority was given to motorable roads: the Sichuan-Tibet3 and the Qinghai-Tibet4 Highways. Surveying for the Tibet-Xinjiang Highway5 cutting across Western Tibet (and the Indian territory in Ladakh) started at the end of 1951; construction began in 1953/54.

On 29 November 1954, Xinhua News Agency reported: “The two large armies of road builders from the eastern and western section of the Sikang-Tibet Highway joined hands on November 27. Sikang-Tibet Highway from Ya-an6 to Lhasa is now basically completed.” The communiqué further mentioned that “gang builders and workers, including about 20,000 Tibetans, covered over 31,000 li on foot in the summer of 1953 and began construction of the 328 km of highway eastwards from Lhasa.” Three weeks later, another report stated that the Qinghai-Tibet Highway was now open to traffic.

The construction of one feeder road leading to Nathu-la, the border pass between Sikkim and Tibet had some strange consequences. India began feeding the Chinese road workers in Tibet, sending tons of rice through this route.

A year later, the first airport in Tibet, located in Damshung, north of Lhasa became functional.

Both the road network and the airports were to play a crucial role not only in what China calls the ‘Liberation of Tibet’, but also today in the so-called ‘stabilization’ of plateau, without forgetting the 1962 border conflict with India.

On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the creation of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), China Tibet Online, a website affiliated to Xinhua said that the 1990s saw “a milestone of transportation development in Tibet. …Following the opening of the two crucial highways 60 years ago, Tibet has become better connected to the outside world.”7

In a message for the occasion, President Xi Jinping called these projects, ‘a miracle in road history’. The Chinese President pleaded for further improvements in transport infrastructure in the TAR: “The two highways have played a vital role in Tibet’s social system, economic and social development, as well as consolidating the southwest frontiers and promoting national unity.”8

The next phase for an infrastructure boom on the Tibetan plateau, at an even faster pace, was the arrival of the Qinghai Tibet Railway in the Tibetan capital in July 2006.

The Tourist Boom

For the past 10 years, the infrastructure on the plateau has developed faster than during the past 1000 years. The railway has had incalculable consequences on what is left of the Tibetan identity, but also the development of ‘Western China’ in general as well as the defence of the borders (with India).

The opening of the railway line, first to Lhasa and later to Shigatse9 has been followed by a deluge of Chinese tourists on the plateau.

In 2015, the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) broke all records; it welcomed more than 20 million tourists. This was officially announced during the ‘Two Sessions’, i.e. the meeting of the Regional People’s Congress and the Consultative Political Conference held early February 2016 in Lhasa.

The tourism industry in the TAR generated 28 billion yuan (4.26 billion U.S. dollars) in 2015, nearly three times the figure of 2010.

Lhasa, Tibet’s capital alone saw its tourism revenue triple over the past five years to an estimated 15.49 billion yuan in 2015. The number of tourists visiting the capital rose to 11.79 million in 2015, a 23 percent increase compared to 2014.

China Tibet News reported that the passenger traffic on the Qinghai-Tibet railway hit 11.934 million in 2015, rising by 3.885 million passengers from 2014. The growth rate reached 48.3%, hitting a new record.

The Chinese website added: “In 2015, tourism in Qinghai and Tibet grows dramatically. Qinghai-Tibet railway company seized the new opportunity and took a series of effective measures to improve its passenger traffic capability. The company added 2,422 passenger trains, 2,992 additional coaches and 1.73 million seats.”10

Because the air is still pure, the sky still blue, the Kyi chu river still clean, millions of mainlanders are attracted to Tibet.

According to the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016 to 2020), Lhasa should receive 24 million Chinese tourists (an annual increase of 15 percent), as well as 300,000 international tourists (an annual increase of 20 percent).

The total revenue from tourism for the Tibetan capital alone is expected to exceed 30 billion yuan (4.6 billion U.S. dollars), accounting for more than 40 percent of Lhasa’s GDP.

The real figures will probably exceed the plans.

For Beijing, the tourist boom is a win-win solution to solve all the problems of the plateau; the Chinese authorities have hence decided to accelerate the infrastructure construction and develop high-end tourism brands with:

  • A new railway line Lhasa-Chengdu (in Sichuan); the western leg from Lhasa to Nyingchi to be completed by 2020 will reach the Indian border
  • A railway line to Kyirong and Nepal, probably to be continued to Kathmandu and perhaps Lumbini
  • A second international airport in Lhasa
  • A new terminal for the Nyingchi airport
  • A new airport in Nagchu
  • A 4-lane highway between Lhasa and Nyingchi
  • Improvement of National Highway 219 between Tibet and Xinjiang
  • All these projects have strategic implications for India, as ALL infrastructure built on the plateau has a dual use: civilian and military.

Dual Use of the Infrastructure

On April 25, 2016, Xinhua reported that during their bi-monthly session, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC) discussed a new law on national defense transport. The legislation will cover the use of infrastructure for defense as well as civilian purposes.

According to the Chinese news agency: “The new law is expected to regulate the planning, construction, management and use of resources in transportation sectors such as railways, roads, waterways, aviation, pipelines and mail services, for national defense.”11 The idea is to integrate military and civilian resources and make sure that the national defense transport network is compatible “with market and economic development.”

It is what General Zhao Keshi, head of the Logistical Support Department and member of the all-powerful Central Military Commission, told the legislators.

A national authority will be formed with the objective of “overseeing the national defense transport network,” announced the general.

The main players will be the local governments, military departments and more importantly, the newly-created Theater Commands.12

They will be jointly responsible to implement the new law.

Xinhua explains further: “A consultation mechanism will be established between local governments and military departments to disseminate and discuss information on construction plans, ongoing projects and demands.”13

And when the needs occur, civilian transport vehicles and facilities will be pressed into service by the PLA.

The concept behind the new law is that national defense transport should consider the needs of both peace and war times, and vice-versa: when the civilian departments plan for new infrastructure, it should be usable by the PLA.

Interestingly, the national defense considerations will be included in any technical standards and codes for transport facilities and equipments.

Xinhua adds: “No organization or individual is allowed to undermine the proper use and safety of national defense transport projects and facilities.”14

Beijing will be setting up “a strategic projection support force to facilitate efficient organization of long-distance and large-scale national defense transport”.

Though the draft law says that “the expenses for defense transportation missions should be borne by their users and the criteria should not be lower than the market price,” it is not clear who will pay the bill as both the PLA and the civilian administration are the ‘users’.

A Joint Command Organization for national defense transport will be set up in wartime or under special circumstances of peacetime, such as armed conflicts that endanger national sovereignty, says the draft.

The Joint Command will have large powers such as coordination of national or regional resources, organization transport operations, repairs and protection of transport infrastructure and facilities, etc.

With the creation of the Western Theater Command (WTC), regrouping all the units on the Tibetan Plateau (earlier the plateau depended on two Military Regions, namely Chengdu and Lanzhou) and in Xinjiang, the coordination and management of the infrastructure on the ‘Indian’ front will be far easier and more efficient.

Why this Frenzy of Infrastructure Development on the Plateau?

At least three issues explain the infrastructure frenzy on the plateau: (in)stability of the restive region, mega-boom of tourism and as importantly, ‘guarding’ the border with India. Though it is rarely mentioned in the Chinese media, one could add the exploitation of the natural resources of the plateau (like water and minerals).

  • Tibet: a Paradise for Tourists. The main pretext for rapidly developing infrastructure has been tourism. According to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, in April 2015, Lhasa was one of the cities with the best air quality in China. The ministry compiled air quality data from 74 major cities. Seven of them, including Lhasa, have met the national standards for best air quality for five main pollutants. The China Daily recently advertized the Roof of the World thus: “Tibet with its mystery is the spiritual Garden of Eden and is longed by travelers’ home and abroad. Only by stepping on the snowy plateau, can one be baptized by its splendor, culture, folklore, life, snow-mountains, sacred lakes, residences with local characteristics and charming landscape.”15 Why would China spend so much time and energy on Tibet if there was not a quick return? Tourism brings tremendous revenues to the regional government and helps in tackling the two other issues.
  • ‘Stability’ of the Plateau. In the wake of the 2008 unrest in Tibet, Beijing still seems nervous. On September 7, 2015, soon after the grandiose parade, Yu Zhengsheng, Communist Party Politburo Central Committee (CPPCC) chairman, who was the chief guest, met a large number of representatives from the PLA and the People’s Armed Police Force (PAPF) posted in Tibet. Yu urged the army, the police and the judicial staff “to crack down on separatist forces and be ready to fight a protracted battle against the 14th Dalai clique.”16 Yu also asked the defence forces “to improve their abilities of governing Tibet according to law [sic], specifically cracking down on the separatist forces, strengthening social management and protecting the people’s rights.” He also mentioned the stability of the border areas, a leitmotiv of the Chinese leadership’s discourse. For all this, infrastructure is crucial. An article in China Tibet Online entitled ‘Iron and Steel road pierces into plateau tourism’ says: “These world class locations are like pearls embedded along the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, and now because of extensions of the Qinghai-Tibet railroad they are all linked up.” It notes that according to the TAR’s Tourist Bureau there were more than 100,000 Tibetans engaged in tourist services in Tibet in 2015, with their annual incomes are over 10,000 yuans. By providing a decent income to the local Tibetans, China believes it can keep the restive populations relatively happy; in addition, it ‘stabilizes’ the plateau.
  • Defending the Border. Last but not the least, the defence of the borders are often mentioned in the Chinese media, during the Tibet Work Forum, Xi reiterated his theory about the ‘border areas’; he said that “a series of strategies have been in effect during the 60-plus years of governing Tibet,” and then cited the theory that “governing border areas is the key for governing a country, and stabilizing Tibet is a priority for governing border areas.17”  This speaks for itself.
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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

Claude Arpi

Writes regularly on Tibet, China, India and Indo-French relations. He is the author of 1962 and the McMahon Line Saga, Tibet: The Lost Frontier and Dharamshala and Beijing: the negotiations that never were.

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