The Xinjiang Autonomous Region (XAR) of China held a Regional Transport Conference on 20 January 2011 to discuss implementation of highway projects identified under the XAR’s 12th Five Year Plan (FYP). An expenditure of 150-200 billion Yuan during the plan period has been envisaged to facilitate building of 76,000 kms of highways that includes 5000 kms of express ways as well as 15,000 kms of first grade highways connecting north-south and east-west regions of Xinjiang. It was announced at the conference that by the year 2013, XAR would basically complete 3000-4000 kms of express ways and that the work on 73 identified projects have begun in 2010 itself with 24.83 billion Yuan having been spent. In 2011, an amount of 35 billion Yuan is to be spent on the projects, out of which 20 billion is to be earmarked for building express ways including one connecting Aksu and Kashi.
The allocation for high way projects in Xinjiang under the 12th FYP is larger in scale than the corresponding figure for the previous plan period – the 11th FYP had stipulated an expenditure of 83 billion Yuan on 1,52, 000 kms of highways that included 1173 kms of express ways. Preceding the Transport Conference, the 11th XAR People’s Congress held its fourth session, which concluded on 14th January 2011. It has called for greater emphasis on development and protection of long term security of XAR. It has also approved an investment of 120 billion Yuan with regard to 25 identified regional infra-structure projects. All such trends, in particular the steady increase being seen in allocations for infrastructure building in Xinjiang, a strategic border region of China, deserve due attention of the countries in China’s periphery.
Earlier, it was reported that the project for extension of a railway line to Hetian (south XAR) was completed as scheduled. This strategic railway line, 488.27 kms long, linking Kashi with Hetian was formally opened to traffic in the first week of January 2011. The project had been sanctioned by China’s National Development and Reforms Commission in July 2008, with approval of US$ 12 billion as cost. The Kashi-Hetian railway line passes through Ying Ji Sha, Sha Che, Yecheng and Pishan. Interestingly, unconfirmed reports suggest this line could further be extended to Tibet, running along the highway connecting Kashi with Lhasa . If true, this may mean two railway lines connecting Tibet with rest of the country: the Qinghai-Tibet railway and the possible Kashi-Hetian-Lhasa railway. The first, according to reports, will have two extensions with construction work beginning in 2013 : Lhasa-Xigaze line,253 kms long, to be completed in four years at a cost of US$ 1.98billion and Lhasa—Nyingchi line ( cost not known). It can be said without doubts that for the two concerned military regions of China- of Chengdu and Lanzhou, this pair of railway lines may prove to be an asset facilitating a quick movement of military logistics into Tibet
China’s renewed emphasis on developing communication infrastructure in Xinxiang as well as Tibet, and extending it close to India’s border in both western and eastern fronts merits attention of New Delhi. Beijing’s efforts at building infrastructure in the Western sector, are being noticed at a time when China appears to be carrying out a nuanced shift in its position on Kashmir. Such a situation reminds one of the problems which the People’s Liberation Army(PLA) had faced during China- Vietnam war. Lack of infrastructure was then the reason for the PLA in having been unable to bring in supplies from the Chengdu Military region; instead the supplies were made through a circuitous route. It seems that such past problems have been solved now, by building additional highways and railway lines; it may be correct to say that thanks to infrastructure building now, the Chengdu and Lanzhou Military Regions will stand to benefit in any future warfare, through the gained capacity to rush reinforcements to the China-Vietnam border areas; the same may be true in the case of China-India border also.
Reports indicate that China had actually carried out surveys on three possible railway lines to connect Tibet, considering three options— use of any among Chengdu, Kunming and Qinghai routes. Building railway lines under the first two options, though could be shorter in duration, economical and easy to maintain, was not preferred by China under a premise that these lines will not be safe due to their proximity to Indian border; instead Beijing chose the third option, which ,as it felt, will be safer though difficult, expensive and longer in duration.
The ongoing infra-structure developments in China’s Xinjiang, near Indian border region, provide both opportunities and challenges for the two nations. There is a Shia-Muslim population in both Hetian and Yecheng which claims to have family relations with Shia community living in Srinagar, Kashmir. Xinjiang’s Shias may be eager to establish trade relations with their counterparts in the Indian side and possibly some unofficial trade may already be taking place through the borders. Such trade can be formalised with advantage to both India and China. The XAR government leaders may be looking forward to establishing commercial links with India. During Xinjiang Governor Tilwaldi’s ‘s visit to India sometime back, such sentiments could be noticed. Development of infrastructure in Xinjiang has the potential to generate enthusiasm on the part of regional and central governments in China, to open border trade with India and in particular to starting direct flights between Xinjiang and Indian cities. Ka shi (kashghar), being developed as Xinjiang’s Shenzhen, can become a focal point in Xinjiang’s trade ties with Indian side. For New Delhi, the military aspects relating to Xinjiang’s development may provide a challenge. It may need to ponder over the likely impact on India’s security coming from the use by Chinese military of the developing Xinjiang infrastructure. India’s challenge could emanate from any Chinese military mis-adventure in the borders coming from the PLA, backed by an improved infrastructure.
(The writer Mr Ashok Tiku is an experienced China analyst based in New Delhi. Views expressed are his own. Email.: email@example.com)