The Most Serious Strategic Development on Indian Frontiers
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Issue Courtesy: | Date : 13 Jan , 2021

One of the most secret projects of President Xi Jinping is to open a new link between Xinjiang and Tibet. The two restive Autonomous Regions border India, particularly the Ladakh region, which is witnessing a serious military confrontation since May 2020.

The Changthang National Nature Reserve

A few years ago, I wrote about the project of a road through the Changthang or ‘Northern plain’ (in Tibetan), which occupies a large part of the Tibetan plateau. With the approval of the State Council, the Changthang National Nature Reserve, located in northern Tibet, south of the Kunlun Mountains, had become a national reserve in April 2000.

The reserve spreads on a total area of 391,200 km2, which makes it the second largest nature reserve in the world, after the Northeast Greenland National Park.

With the recently-established adjoining reserves, there is now a total of 496,000 km2 of connected Nature Reserves.

The Changthang National Nature Reserve lies at an average elevation of 4,500 meters. Administratively, it comes under the Prefectures of Nagchu and Ngari of the Tibet Autonomous Region. Some parts of the Reserve are located in the County of Rutok, bordering Ladakh and particularly the occupied Aksai Chin.

Only a few Tibetan nomads permanently live there, but it is a paradise for wild animals such as wild yak (Bos grunniens), Tibetan wild ass or kiang (Equus kiang), Himalayan blue sheep or Bharal (Pseudois nayaur), Argali (Ovis ammon), Mongolian gazelle (Procapra gutturosa) and Tibetan antelope or chiru (Pantholops hodgsonii). The list of predators is also long; it includes snow leopards (Panthera uncia or Uncia uncia), Tibetan wolves (Canis lupus chanco), Turkestan lynx (Lynx lynx isabellinus) and Tibetan blue bears (Ursus arctos pruinosus).

This reserve will soon be disturbed by the bulldozers, GCBs and thousands of migrant workers.

China is planning a new highly-strategic highway in the area; this will forever change the ecology,  demography and military importance of the area.

Cutting through the Desert

On May 16, 2020, impressive pictures of workers driving bulldozers on a construction site in the Taklamakan Desert were released by Xinhua.

The caption explained: “The construction of Yuli-Qiemo highway, the third north-south route running through Taklamakan Desert, has entered the final rush. Workers of China Communications Construction Company Ltd are working on the largest dune in this project, with an estimated volume of 1.2 million cubic meters of sand to deal with.”

Xinhua’s caption continued: “They established camps next to the dune for the convenience of work, and receive daily necessities on a regular basis. The completion of the highway is expected to improve the transport conditions in southern Xinjiang and promote local development.”

The Yuli-Qiemo County Highway, 330 kilometers in length was the third north-south in the Taklamakan desert; soon there will be five road. The next one interests us (the fifth one is the G580).

Old 216 National Highway

A new road will soon runs parallel the Yuli-Qiemo highway: the National Highway 216 (known as G216) linking northern Xinjiang to Kyirong County in Tibet (the border town with Nepal).

For India, the construction of the G216 will bring the greatest strategic change since the 1950s.

National Highway 216 runs from Altay City in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in direction Baluntai in Hejing County, where it joins China National Highway 218.

City name and distance from starting point:

Altay                      0

Beitun                   62

Fu Yun                  202

Chakurtu Town     263

Ganhezi               629

Fukang                 661

Urumqi                 762

Ballenter              857

A few years ago, I had mentioned the possibility of having a second road-link between the two restive provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang (the first one is the G219 or Aksai Chin road, running through the Indian territory).

According to the ‘National Highway Network Planning (2013-2030)’, the G216 will run from Hongshanzui Port (in Altay County) to Luntai County, then to Minfeng County; Gerze County in Tibet, to finally reach Kyirong.

For obvious reasons, Beijing does not want to announce as yet that it has started the construction of highly-strategic road-link, which, China says, will serve the under-developed parts of Gerze county of Western Tibet (Ngari) …before reaching Nepal.

For Beijing, it is an important part of Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) between Central and South Asia, but in case of conflict with India, he will be a great boon for the People’s Liberation Army.

The crossing of the Kunlun range is the trickiest part of the project.

How will the Chinese engineers managed to cross the mountainous range?

Once on the plateau, the terrain (via Gerze County) will be easier.

Today, many still believe that it is impossible to cross the Kunlun, but Beijing has probably done its home work and studied the 19th century Western explorers such as Sven Hedin or Aurel Stein who moved around the area and found slightly-easier passages to cut across the formidable natural barrier.

As we shall see, it is an old dream of the megalomaniac rulers of China.

The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps

Incidentally, on May 14, 2020, the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) announced that it would pump a lot of funds into transportation projects in 2020.

According to Xinhua: “The [Xinjiang] authorities will invest 9.5 billion yuan (about 1.34 billion U.S. dollars) in 60 major road projects, with plans to build or upgrade roads with a combined length of 2,281 km, according to the local transportation bureau. Of the investment, the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps will allocate 5.7 billion yuan to its areas of jurisdiction in the southern part of Xinjiang.”

Soon after the outbreak of the Corona virus, it was reported that the XPCC had already resumed work on a number of major transportation projects. It is ominous for the Ladakh border, where the Chinese have aggressively attacked India on the LAC.

An Environmental Impact Assessment

To come back to the Changthang Reserve, a few years ago, a “Public Announcement for the Environmental Impact Assessment [EIA] of the New Reconstruction Project of National Highway No. 216 (Tibet Area)” was made from Ngari Prefecture in Western Tibet.

According to the published abstracts of the EIA: “The State Environmental Protection Bureau of the National Highway 216 (Tibet area) area has basically completed the project environmental impact, for pollution prevention and control.”

The new section of the highway will be 857 kilometres in length and link Xinjiang to Tibet; the EIA says: “Control measures analysis and evaluation have been completed in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Interim Measures for Public Participation in Environmental Impact Assessment”.

Some ‘relevant’ contents of the EIA were then made public.

The Overview provided an idea of the route followed by the new highway starting from Xinjiang.

The Highway will be connecting Xinjiang and Tibet via Minfeng, before crossing the Kunlun range, which will be crossed slightly eastward compared to the earlier plans to use the Keryia Pass as an entry into Tibet.

One of the many worrying aspects of the project is that it crosses the highly eco-sensitive Changthang National Nature Reserve.

It will run for 110 km in the main reserve, about 270 km in the buffer zone and some 100 km in the ‘experimental area’. The total investment for the project is RMB 6.453 billion (more than 1 billion US dollars). 

Very few Information about the G216.

However, a Chinese website provides some details about the history of the road; it explains: “Xinjiang and Tibet are two giant autonomous regions occupying nearly one-third of China’s landmass; the boundary between the two autonomous regions is more than 1,300 kilometers.

It mentions the main issue for Beijing: “Due to the barrier of the Kunlun Mountains and the harsh natural environment of the northern Tibet Plateau, the number of practical passages is limited. …Therefore, in history, the Western Regions and the Tibetan Plateau were relatively independent geographical areas, and they did not communicate closely with each other. This can be seen in the distribution of ethnic groups in the autonomous regions, north and south of the (Kunlun). But this does not mean that there were no contacts between the two regions.”

It then makes an interesting remark: “the geographic tag corresponding to Tibet is the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. However, the boundary between Tibet and Xinjiang is not divided according to the boundary of the plateau, but roughly the southern foot of the main Kunlun Mountains is Tibet. …It means that a part of the land of the northern Tibet plateau is part of Xinjiang.”

The article adds: “Moreover, the southern and northern foothills of the Kunlun Mountains, especially the edge of the Aksai Chin Basin in the West, are home to a series of ethnic settlements such as Kirgiz (Kyrgyz), (Mountain/Selekul) Tajik, and Uygur, while the Tibetans are completely absent.”

It practically means that the Kunlun range is the natural frontier; we can deduct from this that the Chinese accept the Kunlun as the geographical border and therefore the Aksai Chin is part of Ladakh (India)? It seems a logical conclusion.

According to the same paper: “Most of the actual administrative rights in this area fall under Hotan (or Hetian or Khotan) in Xinjiang, and only a small part of the southern part belongs to the Ngari region in Tibet. In general, the arid climate to the north of this boundary line corresponds to the oasis civilization in Xinjiang, and the alpine climate to the south corresponds to the plateau civilization in Tibet. Its segmentation effect is quite obvious.”

The crossing of the Kunlun range is clearly the passage between two worlds.

Historical Background

The article observes: “Before the Tang Dynasty, the Western Regions and the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau did not have much contact.”

After the establishment of the ‘Tubo dynasty’ (from the 7th to 9th centuries AD, the Tibetan Empire was unified as a large and powerful empire; it ruled an area considerably larger than the Tibetan Plateau, stretching to parts of East Asia, Central Asia and South Asia; it is called by China the ‘Tubo Empire). The article notes: “Songsen Gampo gradually unified the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and integrated the internal resources of the plateau, Tubo prospered and took the steps to conquer abroad.”

It admits that for centuries “the central government had limited control over the remote occupied areas.”

Later, the Tibetan Empire declined, and the oasis on the southern edge of the desert (Taklamakan in Xinjiang) gradually returned to the Uighurs.

The construction of the G216 will be the first large-scale meeting between the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and the Western Regions (Xinjiang): “The road from the Western Regions to the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is being  …especially the tunnels that cross the Kunlun Mountains,” will make this possible.

Not an Easy Task to Cross

The website continues to explain: “Crossing the Kunlun Mountains is not an easy task. Compared with several other projects in Tibet, the difficulty coefficient is the highest.”

There were several ancient routes to Tibet crossing the Kunlun Mountains, but, though it is looks impossible, the Kunlun can be crossed, believe the Chinese engineers.

It says that ‘in the early days’ there were several passages through the Kunlun Mountains:

  •  Keriya Trail 克里雅 古道, south of Keryia leading to Tibet
  •  Keliyang trail 克里阳 古道, southwest of Hotan leading to Aksai Chin
  •  Sanju ancient road 桑株 古道 south west of Hotan leading to Aksai Chin

The first route, the Keryia Trail “is the shortest of several ancient roads, and also the most difficult and dangerous one.”

It starts from Pulu (?) village in Hotan County in the north, crosses several mountain pass up to the Keryia Pass (the boundary between the New Tibetan Territory or Xinjiang) and Tibet: it runs between the western and the middle section of the Kunlun Mountains before reaching the Changthang uninhabited area in northern Tibet. After that, it uses the Tibetan transportation network to reach Garze and then Gartok.

The Keriya River is on the east. 

The second is the Keliyang Ancient Road. Because its starting point is located in the core area of the ancient Yerkand Khanate, it is also called the Yerkand Road. Starting from Keliyang Township in Pishan County on the northern slope of Kunlun Mountain in the north, passing Akernier Village and then running up the Keliyang River Valley, it crosses Keliyang Daban on today’s G219 National Highway Tibet Highway.

The third is the Sanju Ancient Road, also known as the Yarkand Road or Kunlun Mountain ‘Pack Horse’ Road. The terminus of the trail and that of the Keliyang Ancient Road is the same: Shahidullah (or Saidula). It starts from Sanju Township (Sanju Village) in Pishan County in the north, passes through Kangkeer Kirgizi Nationality Township, and climbs up the Sanju River Valley over Sanju-la (pass). During the Tang Dynasty, this was one of the routes used by the Tibetans to attack Hotan. Before the opening of the Xinjiang-Tibet Highway (G219), it was also used as one of the supply routes for the PLA troops entering Tibet.

A  1953 CIA Report

An interesting report if the CIA mentioned the road construction (including the Aksai Chni road) in 1953. I am quoting from it here:

Road Construction, Sinkiang to Tibet and Ladakh

  • In late 1952, the 2 Cavalry Regiment, commanded by HAN Tse-min, had its headquarters at Gartok (N 31-45, E 80-22). This regiment had 800 camels. A unit of this regiment, numbering 150 men, was garrisoned at Rutok (N 33-27, E 79-42). At the year’s end, 35 Uighurs and 3 or 4 Kazakhs from the Rutok detachment planned to desert and escape to Kashmir, but their plan was detected and the men put under arrest.
  • Another Chinese Communist regiment was stationed on the Tibetan side of the Tibet-Ladakh border near Koyul (N 32-53, E 79-13), between Gartok and Rutok.
  • The leader of the 2 Cavalry Regiment announced the following road-building projects:
      • Road from Khotan (N 37-07, E 79-55) to Rutok, under construction, to be completed in June or July 1953. (According to the Urumchi radio, this road has been completed ). [This is the Aksai Chin road]
      • Road from Rutok to Keryia (N 36-52, E 81-42), of which the construction is contemplated. [It was never built]
      • Motorable road from Khotan to Suget Karaul (N 36-20, E 78-07), under construction, and expected to terminate at Vabjilga. [Approximately N 35-50, E 78-15]. HAN Tse-min said that when these roads were completed, the Chinese Communists would close the Tibet Ladakh border to trade.
  • The Chinese Communists in Sinkiang were telling the people that Ladakh belongs to Sinkiang. [Approximately N 35-50, E 78-15].
  • The Maiksha [Approximately N 35-38, E 78-17] area has suitable terrain for the construction of airfields.

Point 4 is interesting. Beijing’s mindset is probably the same today.

Strategic situation of Shahidullah

‘Shahidullah’ means ‘martyr’ in Uighur, is located at the pass of the Karakash River Valley. The Chinese article states: “The Johnson Line was born during this period, and the background of aggression in those two years became the ‘territorial claim’ that India put forward on the Aksai Chin region.”

The article mentions General Zuo Zongtang (November 1812 – September 1885), a Chinese statesman and military leader of the late Manchu dynasty. In 1875, Zuo was appointed Imperial Commissioner to supervise military action against the Dungan Revolt (1862–1877) or Hui Muslim Minorities War which was fought at the end of the 19th-century in Western China, mostly during the reign of the Tongzhi Emperor (r. 1861–1875) of the Manchu).

By the late 1870s, Zuo had crushed the Revolt and recaptured Xinjiang Province from the ‘rebel’ forces. In 1878, in recognition of his achievements, Zuo was promoted from a first class count to a second class marquis.

Zuo established his base camp in Shahidullah as it was a hub of transportation in the Kunlun Mountains. The place could be reached through the Kudi Ancient Road to the north to Yecheng and Kashgar, and to the east via the Sanju Ancient Road or Kashgar. The ancient road in Liyang can reach Pishan and Hotan, to the south to the Aksai Chin Basin; Changthang in northern Tibet and the Ngari region in the East and the Karakoram Mountains in the West.

After 1949, Shahidullah continued to be a crossroad “with the peaceful liberation of Xinjiang and Tibet after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the actual control of the two places returned to the central government. In order to strengthen the communication and ties between the two places, a building linking the two areas Highway issues urgently need to be put on the agenda,” says the article.

Today, Shahidullah, a town in Pishan County, is strategically located on the upper Karakash River, just to the north of the Karakoram Pass on the old caravan route between the Tarim Basin and Ladakh; it lies next to the G219 between Kashgar and Tibet, 25 km east of Mazar and 115 km west of Dahongliutan.

In 1951, when the People’s Liberation Army built the Xinjiang-Tibet Highway (G219 or ‘Aksai Chin’ road) along the Keryia Ancient Road, it encountered Kunlun Mountain, near the Sulfur Daban.

The Ashkule volcano erupted on May 27, 1951 and many road workers were killed; thereafter, the plan to build a road through the Keryia route in Hotan County was abandoned and replaced by the G219 National Highway Xinjiang-Tibet Road as we know it today.

Description of the G219

The article then describes the G219 starting from Yecheng and crossing the Kunlun Mountains to the Aksai Chin Basin via the Akazi Ancient Road and then continuing southward to the Changthang plateau of Northern Tibet, before reaching the Indus River in Ngari: “After the G219 national highway arrives at Ngari Town (Senge Tsangpo or Shiquanhe in Chinese), it has basically completed its mission of connecting the two districts of Tibet. After that, other national highways or a combination of county highways can be used to reach Lhasa.”

An interesting detail, the article: “After the Kongka Pass incident occurred in 1959, India threatened to blow up the New Tibet Highway [Aksai Chin Road]. For the Chinese side, it is [therefore] absolutely necessary to construct some alternate routes.” It sounds like ‘fake news’.

The website also mentions (with photos) that some of the sections Xinjiang-Tibet Highway are in extremely poor conditions: “The pavement has not been repaired so far. Collapses often occur, and alternate routes are needed.”

The New Road

The article clearly states that according to the national highway network plan, during the period 2013-2030, two new corridors will be built to connect Xinjiang with Tibet.

The first one is the G580 National Highway, Hotan-Moyu (Karakach)-Uluwati-Inditashidaban-Kanxiwar (the boundary of Hotan County and Pishan County): “Although the main body is only in Xinjiang, it can keep the Xinjiang-Tibet passage far away India’s actual control area and shortening the distance between Tibet.”

Incidentally, a War Memorial is located in Kanxiwar; it is said that the tombs of the Chinese soldiers who died during 1962 conflict with India (Rezang-la battle) are kept here.

Other Roads

The other main road will soon be the G216 National Highway, which, as we have seen starts from the Hongshanzui Port in Northern Xinjiang, and then passes through the Luntai Desert Highway to Minfeng, then Gerze and finally to Kyirong Port in Shigatse City, at the border with Nepal: “Its main section is almost parallel to the ancient Keryia Road and is located on the east side of the ancient road, creating a closest connection line from Urumqi to Lhasa.”

The author adds: “In addition, the Hotan area also has a local road network ‘three horizontal and three vertical’ plans, and these ‘three verticals’ are all related to crossing the Kunlun Mountains.”

One of the verticals is the G580 National Highway; the second vertical is the Keryia Highway constructed almost along the route of the Keryia Ancient Road. The key section is Xianbai Baza-Pulu Village-Keryia Pass-Red Tu Daban in Keryia County.

The three verticals are the Sanju Highway constructed almost along the route of the Sanju Ancient Road, Muji-Sanju-Kangkel-Sangzhudaban-Shahidullah in Pishan County: “As a result, the highway across the Kunlun Mountains has become a network,” concludes the website.

The New Tibet-Xinjiang Railway

Even more interesting, the article mentions the new Tibet-Xinjiang railway going through the Aksai Chin: “Since the final route plan of the Xinjiang-Tibet Railway has not yet been released, Yecheng Station, which is temporarily regarded as the starting point of the Xinjiang-Tibet Railway, will also be continuously improved for the Xinjiang-Tibet highway network. If the Yecheng Station is not really when the train arrives, Moyu (Karakash) Station or Hotan Stations will be the starting point, “because the starting point of the other roads is to continue southward into Tibet from the vicinity of Hotan.”

Will India protest if a railway line is laid across the Indian territory?

A Bridge between Xinjiang and Tibet

The article concludes: “The difficult passages between Tibet were used as a bridge for warfare and trade communication between the two major geographic regions [Xinjiang and Tibet] in ancient times.”

In modern times, they have become an important network for China to maintain the peaceful reunification of the western frontier. Tourists also deeply appreciate the vastness of China’s territory while moving on these routes.

In addition, the original Xinjiang-Tibet G219 highway will be extended from both ends, Yecheng in Xinjiang and from Sakya in Tibet towards Kampa Dzong, Tsona, Lhuntse, Metok, Zhayul.


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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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One thought on “The Most Serious Strategic Development on Indian Frontiers

  1. Why Xinjiang?

    According to the East Turkistan Government in Exile, China colonized and annexed East Turkistan (Tarim Basin, Junggar Basin, and Kengsu), also known as the land of the Eastern Turks (Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, and Tatars), in December 1949 when the Communist Party took over. This area encompasses present-day administrative areas of the so-called “Xinjiang,” Uyghur Autonomous Region, and parts of western Gansu and Qinghai Province that China invaded.

    China renamed the region to “Xinjiang (New Territory),” a highly offensive term, to East Turkistanis. Throughout its unique history, East Turkistan has maintained a distinctive, sovereign, national, and religious identity separate from China’s. Except during periods of illegal Chinese occupation, East Turkistan has also maintained a separate and sovereign political and territorial identity.

    Unfortunately, China also renamed Tibet Xizang.

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