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Tibet: Modernisation of Gongga (Lhasa) Airport

The Chinese language media have recently highlighted the beginning of night flight operations from Kunming (Yunnan) to Gongga (arrival Gongga, 2140 hrs. consuming 3.05 hrs of time, departure Gongga for Kunming, 2240 hrs.). It may be recalled that 24 hour night flight operations began in Gongga airport on 30 June 2008, as part of US $ 13.2 million “Gongga Renovation and Expansion Project” which provided for installation of runway lighting and construction of new terminal building. Gongga is now a buzzling Airport with flights to eight Chinese cities – Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing, Guangzhou, Kunming,  Shanghai, Xian and Xining. It is also air connected to Kathmandu. It has become capable of handling traffic involving Air bus A-330.

There are now five civilian airports in Tibet – Gongga (Lhasa), Xigaze (Rikaze), Nyingchi (Linzhi, with night landing facilities), Changdu (Qamdo) and Gunsa (Ali). A sixth airport is coming up at a cost of US $ 260 million at Nagqu  in the Himalayan region  through which Qinghai – Tibet railway passes through.

For obvious reasons, the civilian airports in Tibet will also militarily be useful. Mostly, military airports like that in Gongga, are situated along the civilian ones. There are reportedly about fifty airfields which the airforce units under Lanzhou and Chengdu military regions, can access. According to available information, no regular Air Force units are deployed in Tibet. However, the Chinese J-7fighter aircraft are reportedly being deployed in Gongga on an annual basis for training and area familiarisation during the fair weather period of July to October every year. According to a report (PLA Daily, 30 July 2010), China’s third generation fighter aircraft performed  patrolling tasks for the first time in Tibet with a field occupation time of eight hours. Military analysts think that they could be J 11 fighters of 97th Regiment, 33rd Fighter Division of Chengdu Air Force Command (China – defense.blogspot.com/2010/08/j-11-over-tibet.html). The information given in the Chinese media ( August 2010) that combat readiness materials were transported to Tibet through the Qinghai – Tibet railway for the first time and holding of first live fire joint ground and air drill in Tibet(October 2010), may indicate Chinese plans to  increase the involvement of the airforce in Tibet.

Modernisation of air infrastructure in Tibet is part of China’s overall border strategies aimed integrating the regions with the Mainland economically, politically and militarily. In the five years 2006 – 2010, an amount of US $10 billion was allotted for completion of 188 infrastructure projects in Tibet which include the construction of 2143 kms long Xinjing – Tibet Highway.

For India, the improvement of air, road and rail infrastructure in Tibet is no doubt strategically important. Whereas, China’s airports across the border are now fully modernised with night landing facilities, there is no matching situation in India particularly in Jammu & Kashmir and the northeast. Needless to say that such a gap should be filled up with no loss of time.

(The writer Mr Ashok Tiku is an experienced China analyst based in New Delhi. Views expressed are his own. Email.: ashoktiku1@hotmail.com)

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