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

The Train to the Borders

The railway will soon reach the Nepal Border (Kyirong) and the Indian border in Arunachal Pradesh and possibly the Chumbi Valley adjacent to Sikkim.

Here too tourism is used as the stone which kills several birds. Mainland’s travel agencies promote packages such as “Three-day tour to Nyingchi for enjoying peach blossoms”. The promotions tell the tourists that they will not only “enjoy beautiful scenery but also visit local families and taste unique Tibetan delicacies.”

Let us not forget the main town in Nyingchi prefecture is Bayi.

Bayi, which stands at India’s doors, translates by ‘8-1’, meaning that the area belongs to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) whose anniversary falls on 8-1 or August 1).

Bayi’s Tourism Bureau announced that the district received more than 174,000 tourists from January to March in 2016, up by 53.23 percent.

The Chinese government promotes “Pure Land, Beautiful Nyingchi” or the “The Switzerland of Tibet” or the gorges of the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra).

Beijing says that the area “enjoys unique ethnic culture, biological culture and beautiful scenery. Bayi District has developed rural tourism, folk custom tourism and other forms of tourism.”

While the train will be reaching Nyingchi in 2020, a four-lane highway may be reaching soon. On May 23, China Tibet Online mentioned the ‘World’s most beautiful highway, Lhasa-Nyingchi Super Highway’18 which should be completed in 2017.

A spectacular picture of the road leading to the Indian border is captioned. “Ecology corridor, green gallery, landscape avenue …stunning scenery of the Lhasa-Nyingchi Super Highway attracts lots of people.”

While the Indian Government sticks to its archaic mindset where an antiquated ‘Inner Line Permit’ dating from the days of the Raj still prevails, China is developing its borders at a rapid pace.

Why can’t India emulate Beijing in this field?

The Case of Metok

Located north of Upper Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh, Metok is small county with a population of hardly 11,000 inhabitants. Before the opening of a tunnel in October 2013, Metok was ‘the last county in China not accessible by a highway’.

Metok is situated south of the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra). Xinhua describes the place thus: “The ‘Land of the Hidden Lotus’ lies at an altitude of 1,200 meters. Due to the regional Himalaya fragment belt and the Metok fragment belt, there is frequent geologic movement making it an area often witnessing numerous earthquakes, avalanches, landslides and mudslides. With a humid climate with much rainfall adding to all of this, Metok ended up becoming the last county in China to be connected by road.”19

Can you believe it: two years later, the county received over 70,000 visitors?

China Tibet Online noted that since a highway reached the village of Metok in 2013, “tourism industry has seen rapid development”.

The propaganda invites the Chinese tourists to see the Galongla Waterfall, the wonder of Swallow Pond, the Metok Waterfalls, the Menba suspended tower and other scenic sites, “as well as ‘plant fossil’ spinulosa trees and other such thousands of kinds of plants and animals.”

How many Indian tourists are allowed to visit Tuting/Geling in Upper Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh, located south of Metok, on the banks of the Yarlung Tsangpo river20? A handful at the most!

Would it not be the best way for the Government of India to demonstrate on the ground that Arunachal is part of India?

Xinhua noted that following the opening of the Metok road, the local population has “quickly started moving forward towards a better-off life.”

With one stone, many birds are killed. Since 2013, the length of public roads in the Metok County has reached 270 kilometers21.

It is worth noting that it is in the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo that a mega Three Gorges type of dam, is purported to be planned. The dams constructed and under construction at present are on the River before it enters the gorge of Great Bend.

The opening of roads, the improvement of communication infrastructures as well as the rapid development of the tourist industry could one day facilitate the construction of the dam.

Needless to say that these developments located a few kilometers north of the McMahon Line should be a deeply worrying development for India.

The Railway Line between Lhasa-Chengdu

The new railway between Chengdu and Lhasa is the next mega project for China. The Economist remarked: “Plans for a new railway line into Tibet pose a huge technological challenge—and a political one.”

The London-based publication noted: “A COLOSSAL roller-coaster is how a senior engineer described it. He was talking about the railway that China plans to build from the lowlands of the south-west, across some of the world’s most forbidding terrain, into Tibet. Of all the country’s railway-building feats in recent years, this will be the most remarkable: a 1,600-kilometre track that will pass through snow-capped mountains in a region racked by earthquakes, with nearly half of it running through tunnels or over bridges. It will also be dogged all the way by controversy.”22

Though half as long as the Qinghai-Tibet Railway (QTR), but may take thrice the time to build. The cost is estimated at 105 billion yuan ($16 billion).

The Economist remarks that while Lhasa is about 3,200 metres higher than Chengdu, “yet by the time the track goes up and down on the way there—crossing 14 mountains, two of them higher than Mont Blanc, Western Europe’s highest mountain — the cumulative ascent will be 14,000 metres.”

It does not seem to pose a problem for the Chinese planners.

Once the railway is functional, the entire plateau will be economically and strategically integrated into the Mainland and 100 million Chinese tourists will pour into the Roof of the World every year.

Other Developments

Apart from the projects already mentioned, such as the railway line to Kyirong and Nepal, the second international airport in Lhasa, the new airport in Nagchu, and in parallel, the new Lhasa-Chengdu railway line, smaller projects are presently going on.

For example, the Gonggar Railway Station at the Lhasa Airport is now under construction. Xinhua reported: “At present, station projects of Gonggar Railway Station in Tibet Autonomous Region is stepping up its construction, and expected to be completed by the end of 2016.”

The news agency adds that the new station will be adjacent to 101 Provincial Highway, 15 km distance from Gonggar-Lhasa Airport, “It will provide convenience for many domestic and overseas tourists in and out of Tibet after the completion of the railway station.”

The setting up of a sophisticated electricity grid is progressing at fast pace. According to China Tibet Online: “Key western development projects—the Qinghai-Tibet networking project has been in operation for 5 years, withstanding the cold, low atmospheric pressure, high winds and sand, and other harsh environmental tests. Operations have remained safe and stable, bringing benefits to the people along the ‘bright, heavenly road’ in Qinghai and Tibet.”23

The National Grid Qinghai Electric Power Company provided some data: since its inception, the Qinghai-Tibet networking project has already conveyed 3.3billion kW/h to Tibet, equivalent to 416,900 tons of standard coal transport, which is a reduction in carbon emissions of 1.03 million tons.

More interestingly: “The Qinghai-Tibet D.C. power system successfully carried out reverse-carry loads. The Tibet power grid achieved 332 million kW/h of hydropower delivery during the high water level periods, all of which was consumed within Qinghai Province.”24

It means that once a few dams, now under construction, are operational (particularly on the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra), Tibet will be able to supply China with electricity. The Chinese website further describes the project: “The Qinghai-Tibet networking project is a key western development project. It is also the world’s highest D.C. electricity transmission project and the longest transmission line across frozen ground. Located mostly in a low atmospheric pressure area with a lack of oxygen, cold, high winds, and radioactive hot spots, at an average elevation of 4,500 meters high, the highest elevation point is at 5,300 meters high. More than 900 kilometers of the line are located in areas above 4,000 meters high.”

All this has important strategic implications for India.

The Aksai Chin to Xinjiang

Another large project is renovation of the Xinjiang-Tibet Highway, known in China as National Highway 219 and in India by his infamous name ‘the Aksai Chin road’: infamous because the Nehru government took more than 5 years to discover that the PLA had built a road on Indian territory.

In an article titled ‘Across China: Heavenly road brings the high life to Tibetan Plateau’, Xinhua remarks: “It is the melon season in neighboring Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, fresh fruit is stacked up at the roadside, waiting to be ferried through the Kunlun Mountains and up to the plateau along the Xinjiang-Tibet Highway.”

This road has not only linked the two most strategic (and restive) provinces of China (Tibet and Xinjiang) but also helped to tremendously cut the cost for the occupation of Western China by the PLA.

Xinhua takes an example: “Less than a decade ago, a kilogram of melon could sell for 60 yuan (about 10 U.S. dollars) on the plateau.”

It then quotes Zhang Lei, head of an armed police transport detachment stationed in Ritu County along the highway: “Last year the price was just a little over 10 yuan.”

National Highway 219 is built at an average altitude of over 4,500 meters and is the world’s highest motorable road.

The Chinese news agency gives the historic background: “Originally covered by gravel in 1950s, the 2,340-kilometer highway was almost fully paved by 2013, slashing the travel time between Yecheng County in southern Xinjiang and Ngari Prefecture in Tibet from 15 days to just one day, with another day to reach Lhasa. Accidents and fatalities also decreased dramatically.”25

The article concludes: “The highway today looks to me like an airport runway — wide, flat and smooth – a heavenly road, indeed.”

It is certainly a great boon for the PLA and China’s border management in general.

Xinhua explains: “With a safe, modern highway, transportation costs from Yecheng to Ngari have fallen by 55 percent, leading to cuts of about 40 percent in the price of commodities in the Tibetan town. Better yet, the number of tourists in Ngari has surged five-fold.”

In other words, the PLA’s ‘Indian front’ will get its supplies faster and cheaper.

Buy Now: This book is sequel to “Threat from China”.


China is indeed far, far ahead of India in terms of border management and development.

Though it may not be a threat in itself, the tremendous progress made by China on the Tibetan plateau shows that in peace time, it is working hard to prepare for war time.

The time has perhaps come for Delhi to study the happenings on the other side of the LAC. It is particularly important at a time the two former Military Regions of Chengdu and Lanzhou have been merged into one Western Theater Command, greatly improving the management of China’s borders with India.


1. One should not forget that in 1950 (when Eastern Tibet was invaded), a caravan took two months to reach Lhasa from the Chinese border.

2. And airstrips.

3. Or Sikang-Tibet Highway.

4. Or Tsinghai-Tibet Highway.

5. Known in India as the Aksai Chin road

6. Capital of the defunct province of Sikang

7. 2014 Yearender: 60th Anniversary of the Opening of Sichuan-Tibet and Qinghai-Tibet Highways on China Tibet Online: see

8. Chinese President stresses better transport for Tibet on Xinhua: see

9. In August 2015.

10. Passenger traffic volume of Qinghai-Tibet railway hits 10 mln in 2015, China Tibet News, see

11. China mulls new law to secure national defense transport, China Daily, see

12. The Western Theater Command (WTC) in case of the Indian border adjoining Tibet and Xinjiang).

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Appealing Tibet for you to capture in person, China Tibet Online, see

16. Chinese army, police warn of long fight against Tibet separatists, Xinhua, see

17. Xi stresses unity for Tibet, vows fight against separatism, Xinhua, see

18. World’s most beautiful highway, Lhasa-Nyingchi Super Highway, China Tibet News, see

19. Tibet’s Medog County welcomes over 70,000 visitors in 2015, China Tibet News, see

20. The Yarlung Tsangpo becomes the Siang in Arunachal Pradesh and the Brahmaputra in Assam.

21. Respectively 75% and 46% of the townships and villages are now reachable by road.

22. A new railway to Tibet, Doubling down, The Economist, see

23. Five years of safe and stable operations for electric power road, China Tibet Online, see

24. Ibid.

25. Heavenly road brings the high life to Tibetan Plateau, China Daily,

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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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