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China: Infrastructure Building in Xinjiang and Tibet – Implications for India

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is accelerating its drive to build infrastructure in the country’s Western border region, which comprises the minorities-inhabited and ethnically restive Xinjiang and Tibet. What is being witnessed is an unprecedented level of construction, modernization and expansion of the airports, railways, expressways and gas pipelines in the region; discernible in such ‘Go West’ initiatives, being undertaken by the Central Government in Beijing under its 12th Five Year Plan (2011-2015) is the PRC’s vision to economically integrate its western parts, remained backward so far, with the already booming advanced coastal areas in the country. China apparently hopes that economic development can neutralize the rise of separatism in Xinjiang and Tibet.

Secondly, the international dimension of China’s infrastructure building- making Xinjiang and Tibet as a hub for economic contacts with the neighboring countries in Central and South Asia, looks important. An ‘economic development zone’ is to come up in Kashghar to boost Xinjiang’s cross border trade. In Tibet, the need for the region’s increased connectivity to Nepal and India as well as to the Indian Ocean is receiving high level attention; the 12th Five Year Plan of the local government (Lhasa, January 2011) has specifically called for building a “South Asia Land Route”. All these can be seen as part of China’s evolving strategy towards the two regions; with respect to Central Asia, its driving force is the demand for energy resources and the need for a joint counter-terrorism approach, while towards South Asia, it mainly rests on the compulsions to protect sea trade routes, vital for the PRC’s raw material imports.

The third significant factor relates to the ‘defence connotation’ of the improved border infrastructure. This is even being admitted within China. This factor is prompting India, a country having a serious boundary problem with the PRC, to respond suitably. As a result, mutual suspicions between India and China are as such likely to aggravate, negatively impacting on the bilateral relations. Also, other regional nations may fear that the increased economic clout resulting from border infrastructure building can ultimately lead to China’s military projection in to the region. Scholars like Konstantin Syroyezhkin of the Kazakhstan Institute of Strategic Studies have expressed such concerns by observing that China may use the improved border infrastructure to deploy its troops in Central Asia as an insurance against emergence of any external security challenge to it.

A detailed account of China’s infrastructure development in Xinjiang and Tibet is given at Appendix below.

How should India respond to China’s border infrastructure building? This may require a detailed examination. For New Delhi, there may be a positive aspect in China’s border endeavors.  When both India and China develop the respective border economies, facing each other and cross border trade gathers momentum, the situation may undoubtedly  bring advantages to both. On the other hand, India, viewing from a strategic angle, may perceive a threat from the PRC’s border improvement measures. This is because it, unlike other Central and South Asian neighbours of China, has an unsolved border dispute with China and on that basis, is required to pay close attention to what is happening across the border, particularly, in the military sphere. The vice-versa may also be true. As far as India is concerned, it may be   justified in focusing on the military potentials of some key proposals – to link Xinjiang and Tibet by a railway line, build a trans Karakoram Railway to link Pakistan and China along with up gradation of Karakoram Highway, extend China’s railway system to Xigaze close to Indian border and strengthen the air infrastructure in Tibet. India may particularly be worried about reports of Chinese troop presence in Gilgit – Baltistan, originally a part of Jammu & Kashmir. India’s Defence Minister has himself articulated his country’s concerns about the increased Chinese military activities along the Line of Actual Control, and announced counter measures. Also, the Indian Defence Ministry’s Annual Report for 2009 – 10 has stressed the need to take necessary steps to upgrade the infrastructure and force formations in the country’s northern border.

To sum up, once the new border projects are in place, Chinese pressure and push into South Asia are likely to intensify and emergence of a scenario of strategic Sino-Indian competition may become in-evitable. But, India and China, through political level dialogue, can ensure that such a competition does not turn into a military crisis. Currently, the border situation is stable and at macro levels, both the nations are maintaining cordiality with each other. The bilateral trade volume is increasing, high level contacts among the two are continuing, mutual co-operation on international arena is being strengthened, India-China military level ties are being resumed and last but not least the two sides have taken a stand that each is not a threat to other. Over all, there appears to be no room for pessimism about India-China relations at this stage.

(The writer Mr Ashok Tiku is an experienced China analyst based in New Delhi. Views expressed are his own. Email.:



Projects completed

Railways: Kashgar- Hotan( Hetian) Railway line, near to the Western Section of India-China border, was opened to traffic in the first week of January 2011. Hotan is Xinjiang’s mining centre.Built with an investment of US$ 12 billion; the line passes through Ying Ji Sha, Sha Che, Yecheng and Pishan and is expected to help in transporting the exploited mineral resources in the region, with annual freight capacity of 15 million tonnes. Reports suggest that this line could be extended further to Tibet along the Kashgar – Lhasa highway.

Projects on hand

Airports: New airports are coming up at Tazhong, Shache, Loulan, Tumshuq, Qiemo and Fuyun. Tazhong will be China’s first airport in a desert. It will be strategically important as its location lies in Tarim Basin which has rich oil and gas potentials. The existing airports at Urumqi, Hotan(Hetian) and  Korla are to be upgraded. The number of operational airports in Xinjiang will, as a result of air infrastructure expansion will be 22, from the current level of 16.  The number of airlines operating in xinjiang is now 51 and this figure may go up further. Xinjiang’s air traffic volume is expected to touch 20.4 million by 2015.

Railways: Under consideration is a proposal for building a trans-Karakorum railway line linking China’s far-west with the Arabian Sea. The line is slated to  connect China’s Kashgar (Xinjiang) and Pakistan’s Havelian near Rawalpindi and then reaching up to the Gwadar port, passing through Khunjerab pass and the  Pakistan-controlled Gilgit-Baltistan region. When completed, it will provide   China direct access to the Persian Gulf and make Pakistan as an alternate route for transport to China of goods and oil from Middle East and Africa.

China plans to build a rail link between Xinjiang and Tibet under the 12th Five Year Plan (2011-15). This will be the first direct rail link between Qinghai-Tibet plateau and Xinjiang, reducing the distance between Lhasa and Urumqi by 1000 kms.

Express ways: China is upgrading the Karakorum highway connecting Punjab and Xinjiang. In a strategic sense, this (along with the proposed Trans-Karakorum railway) could be strategically important for the Chinese military in the event of another conflict with India ; Chinese missiles and spare parts can be moved to  Pakistan along the highway.

China is giving financial assistance to Kazakhstan for the completion of a 3,000-kilometer ‘new asphalt Silk road’ by the latter across the country, allowing trucks to drive from China to Western Europe via Xinjiang. The ‘new asphalt Silk road’ will link China (Yellow Sea port of Lianyungang, Zhengzhou, on the Yellow River, Lanzhou in North-Central China and Urumqi in North- West China) with Kazakhstan (Almaty), Russia (Orenburg, Moscow and St.Petersburg) and beyond.

Gas pipelines: A 7000 kms long natural gas pipeline connecting Central Asia with Xinjiang is to come up by 2013. Its construction ‘resurrects’  the ancient Silk Route, say leaders of the concerned parties to the project- China, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.  Its capacity is estimated to be 40 billion cubic metres per year. The 1833 kms long Kazakh section of the pipeline, with Chinese investment of US$ 6.7. Billion is already operational.     China has announced its interest to invest in total a sum of US$ 44 billion in the country’s oil and gas projects.

A proposal is reportedly under consideration for oil and gas transportation through pipelines across the Pakistan-China border (Pakistan Ambassador in China). China may also join the Iran-Pakistan-India oil pipeline (Iranian Foreign Minister).

Trade: China is to make Urumqi as an “International Trade Centre’ by 2020 and transport infrastructure building in Xinjiang is expected to result in enhanced links between Urumqi and inland Chinese regions as well as areas in Central and West Asia. Reports also indicate that an Economic Development Zone is being set up in Kashgar to boost cross-border trade and make the city a hub for Central Asia.

Funds announced: Beijing has officially stated that an amount of US$ 322 billion will be invested in Xinjiang’s development projects for the period 2011-2020 covering water conservation, railway and civil aviation sectors. This includes a railway expansion project for Xinjiang covering the current Five Year Plan period (2011-2015), with an investment of US$ 47.6 Billion; under it, 8000 kms of rail track are to be added to the existing capacity in Xinjiang. With regard to highway projects in Xinjiang, the allotted amount for 2011-2015 is US$ 22.80 Billion. 76000 kms of highways are to be built which include 5000 kms of express ways, 15000 kms of first grade highways connecting north – south and east-west regions of Xinjiang.  By the year 2013, 3000 – 4000 kms of express ways in Xinjiang are expected to be completed. To improve air infrastructure in Xinjiang, China plans to invest US$ 4.56 billion in 2011-15, a figure which is 4.5 times bigger than the allocation in the 11th Five Year Plan period.

Tibet & Tibet Inhabited Areas

Projects completed

Airports: China has built five airfields in Tibet: Gongga, Linzhi, Bangda,Heping and Gar Gunsa.

Express ways: The total road network in Tibet is assessed to involve 58,000 kms in 2010.

Projects on hand

Airports: Under the 12th Five Year Plan(2011-2015), the following are air infrastructure building plans in Tibet-  (i)connect Lhasa(Gongga) with all domestic cities and international capitals, (ii) establish Nagqu airport, expand Linzhi, Milin, Changdu, Bangda and Gongga airports, build Emergency Relief and Rescue Bases,  Common Use Land and Take-off Bases and (iii) complete Tibet aviation fuel distribution  project.

Tibet Airlines is expected to commence operations in July 2011 linking Lhasa and other major Chinese cities. Beijing,Shanghai and Chengdu are to be linked in 2011 and  Nyingchi, Xigaze and Nagqu in 2012.

Railways : Under the 12th Five Year Plan (2011-2015), the following  Seven  railway projects are to be undertaken – (i) two extensions of the existing Qinghai  – Tibet  line, one,253 kms long, to Xigaze to be completed in four years and another to Nyingchi,  as part of Sichuan – Tibet railway, to start in 2013, (ii) feasibility studies on  proposed links between Lhasa  and Chengdu (Sichuan) as well as Lhasa and Kunming (Yunnan),  (iii) linking of Tibet with Xinjiang through a  shortest possible route  cutting short the distance by 1000 kms ; this is to be achieved through  building a new line linking Gormo ( Qinghai) and Korla (Xinjiang) passing through the resource-rich Tsaidam Basin with an investment of US$ 784 million, (iv) connecting of Gormo with Dunhuang (Gansu), (v) linking of Gormo with Chengdu(Sichuan) passing through Aba, the location of Kirti monastery which has been witnessing protests from monks,  (v) completion of 1776 kms long express  railway line between Lanzhou (Gansu)  and Urumqi (Xinjiang), (vi) establishment of  links between Xining(Qinghai) and Kunming(Yunnan) passing through Chamdo in Eastern Tibet and  (vii) connection of Gormo(Qinghai) with Dunhuang(Gansu). Completion of these seven projects would mean   firm linkages between the existing Qinghai-Tibet railway and the rest of the country’s rail network.

China is reportedly building a railway line from Tajikistan to Pakistan to supplement its exploration efforts aimed at exploring oil and gas reserves, iron ore deposits in Heart and Panjsher valley, Gold deposits in Northern and North-Western region.

Highways/Express ways: The 12th Five Year Plan (2011-2015) provides for increasing the length of express ways in Tibet, from the present level of 58,000 kms to 70,000 kms. Specifically coming under it, is the ongoing construction of Beijing- Huhehot (Inner Mongolia) Expressway, which is expected to ease traffic pressure on the Inner Mongolia section of the Beijing-Tibet Expressway. Other stated objectives are to build a network of expressways linking Lhasa with the regional towns of Xigaze, Nagqu, Shannan and Linzhi through a four hour travel in each case and to rebuild Tibet-Xinjiang, Tibet-Yunnan and China-Nepal highways. Attention is also to be given to setting up speedy road and rail links with neighbouring countries; getting emphasis is the need to build a  ‘South Asia Land Route and Trade Bridge’.

Gas pipelines: In 2011-2015, oil and gas fields are to be developed in Qinghai province; connecting them will be Lhasa – Xigaze and Lhasa- Shannan pipelines.

Funds announced: An amount of US$ 1.98 billion has been allocated towards projects to extend the Qinghai – Tibet railway line. Also, an amount of US$ 7.5 billion has been earmarked under 12th Five Year Plan for increasing the length of highways, as mentioned above.


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