Xi's Mega Projects: Should India Worry?
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Issue Courtesy: | Date : 18 Jan , 2021

On the occasion of the New Year, President Xi Jinping called the Communist Party “a gigantic vessel that navigates China’s stable and long-term development;” he stated: “Upholding the principle of putting people first and remaining true to our founding mission, we can break the waves to reach the destination of realizing the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation …China will embark on a new journey of development in 2021 and strive to achieve socialist modernization by the year 2035.”

Traditionally, the Chinese people’s respect for their Emperor increases when the latter undertakes projects that no human mind can conceive of. After all, the Emperor is the Son of Heaven, and only in Heaven can projects such as the Grand Canal or the Great Wall be dreamt of. It is also the role of the Emperor to bring Heaven’s vision down on earth. If he fails, his Mandate is terminated by Heaven and a Revolution or a Rebellion occurs.

This is what might soon happen to Xi Jinping, but in the meantime, he is thinking big.

The Seventh Tibet Work Forum (TWF), a mega meeting which decides the fate of Tibet for the years to come (to which rare Tibetans are invited), was held in Beijing on August 28 and 29, 2020.

The Seventh TWF was a crucial event not only as it concerns the fate of the Roof of the World, but also for the presently tense Indian frontiers and the precarious situation in Ladakh.

The TWF usually defines the policies for China’s western border (this explains the presence of the entire Central Military Commission, as well as the service chiefs, including the Chief of the PLA Navy at the Forum).

During the meeting, infrastructure development was linked with Border Defence; the construction of Xiaokang (moderately well-off) villages on India’s border, was mentioned.

A few weeks later, some massive projects were announced; first, the Pai-Metok (Pai-Mo) Highway linking Nyingchi to Metok, north of Upper Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh will be opened in July 2021.

After the completion of the highway, the length of the road from Nyingchi City to Metok County will be shortened from 346 kilometers to 180 kilometers and the driving time will be shortened from 11 hours to 4.5 hours. The Highway starts in Pai Town in Milin County of Nyingchi and uses a long tunnel to pass through the Doshong-la Mountain, ending South of Metok town, close to the Indian border (Tuting Circle). Though only 67 kilometers long, in strategic terms the highway will be a game changer and greatly accelerate the developments of new model villages, and therefore relocation of populations on the border. But more importantly, it will pave the way for a mega hydropower plant (HPP).

In December 2020, The Global Times announced Beijing’s plan to build a large hydropower plant (HPP) on the Yarlung Tsangpo River (which becomes the Siang and later the Brahmaputra in India).

The tabloid admitted that “it has raised concerns in India over potential political and ecological threats as the river passes through Southwest China, India and Bangladesh”, it however asserted that Chinese experts “refuted the claim that Chinese hydropower project have political aims, and said the project could help alleviate power shortage problem in northern India and boost regional economy.”

The Metok County government confirmed that the project would be built north of the McMahon Line. The mouthpiece of the Party added: “The head of Power Construction Corp of China (POWERCHINA) suggested the planned hydropower station – which is expected to have three times as much generating capacity as the world-leading Three Gorges power station – aims to maintain water resources and domestic security.”

After the Ladakh fiasco where President Xi Jinping did not expect the Indian Army to resist his land-grabbing tactics (‘salami slicing’ or whatever you call them), he has to save face in front of his colleagues of the Central Committee and Politburo. To bring the threat of a mega dam to the Northern Indian border is a clever move. The fact that the news came out in The Global Times, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China, is telling.

Xi believes that the Party (meaning himself) is always right, how could he have blundered in Ladakh; to regain some standing, he has to intimidate India. A mega dam or hydropower plant, thrice the size of the Three Gorges Dam, threatening the life in the North-East is the best way to divert the attention from the Pangong tso.

But it is not all, already in 2016, The China Daily had reported the construction of a 1,629-kilometer Sichuan-Tibet railway. It has now entered a crucial phase.

At that time, Lobsang Gyaltsen, the then Chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region government, (Gyaltsen has recently ‘disappeared’ like Jack Ma), announced during the fourth session of the TAR’s 10th People’s Congress in Lhasa: “The government will start a preliminary survey and research of the Kangding-Nyingchi railway project this year, and accelerate the construction of Sichuan-Tibet railway in the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20) period.” Kangding is known as Dardo or Dartsedo in Tibet; it is today the capital city of Gartse Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture.

The railway will be connecting Lhasa to Chengdu; it will be divided into three sections from west to east: Lhasa-Nyingchi, Nyingchi-Kangding, and Kangding-Chengdu. The railway line will run some 1,000 km on the Tibetan plateau. The construction of the western and the eastern sections already started last year. The entire project is expected to be completed in mid 2030s.

The China Daily quoted Lin Shijin, a senior civil engineer at China Railway Corp, who stated: “The accumulated height it will climb reaches more than 14,000 meters, and it will cross many fault zones. It’s like the largest rollercoaster in the world. With a designed service life of 100 years, it is believed to be one of the most difficult railway projects to build on Earth …it presents difficulties to overcome, such as avalanches, landslides, earthquakes, terrestrial heat, karst caves and underground streams, yet, it is still a worthwhile project.”

It takes today 42 hours by train and three days by road to travel from Chengdu to Lhasa; the new rail line will shorten the travel time to less than 15 hours.

It will have incalculable strategic implications for India as the train will pass near the Indian border, north of the McMahon Line in Nyingchi City (Prefecture).

An even more formidable project is a new road between Xinjiang and Tibet.

The National Highway 216 (known as G216) may one day link northern Xinjiang to Kyirong County in Tibet (the border town with Nepal). It would be the second road link between the two restive provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang (the first one is the G219 or Aksai Chin road, running through Indian territory).

For obvious reasons, Beijing does not want to announce it as yet; the road should serve the under-developed parts of Gerze county of Western Tibet (Ngari Prefecture) …and reached Nepal. It is probably an important part of the Belt & Road Initiative between Central and South Asia, dreamt by Xi Jinping.

But this is not the trickiest part of the project. How will the Chinese engineers manage to cross the Kunlun range?

Once on the plateau, the terrain (probably 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.

Last, but not the least, Xi is planning to start a mega lead-zinc mining project in Huoshaoyun area, in the China-occupied Aksai Chin; according the Shanghai Nonferrous Metals Network: “In September 2016, Xinjiang geological prospecting made a new major breakthrough. Among them, the Huoshaoyun super large lead-zinc mine has a proven resource of 17.08 million tons, ranking seventh in the world, second in Asia, and first in China. …as early as the end of 2016, Guanghui Zinc, a subsidiary of Guanghui Group, had tendered for open-pit mining, explosive supply and blasting services at the Huoshaoyun lead-zinc mine. It was initially scheduled to be organized from April 2017 to the end of December 2019. At present, some areas of Huoshaoyun Mine have entered the exploration stage.”

Though the three first projects (the HPP in the Yarlung Tsangpo, the Sichuan Railway and the G216 Highway) are all affecting India, the last one (the mining in the Aksai Chin) is located on Indian territory.

Nobody seems to have thought about the pollution generated by these mines, it is a great tragedy in the making; moreover for India, the development of the ‘dual-use’ (civil and military) infrastructure in the Ladakh sector will take place on a much larger scale than today.

It is interesting to watch how the Mandarins of South Block will react. They will probably try to keep the information under the carpet as long as possible, not wanting “to hurt the Chinese sensibilities.”

But if they wait too long, it may be too late.

India will face a new fait-accompli.


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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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