The story started millions years ago when the Indian island collided with the Asian plate. Without this collision, life could have continued for eternity undisturbed on the Indian island, but it was neither the destiny of Tibet to remain a sea forever, nor the fate of India to be perpetually an island.
Thereafter, during the last two millennia, Tibet and India lived in close and harmonious contact.
During the period known as the First Propagation of the Buddha Dharma in Tibet (7th-8th century), many great Indian Masters such as Padmasambhava and Sankarakshita visited the Land of Snows; Buddhism became the state religion. The Second Propagation (10th-11th century), considered as the Renaissance in Tibet, came from India. The temples and gompas (monasteries) of Tholing and Tsaparang in Western Tibet (as well as Alchi and Tabo in the Indian Himalayas) are the remnants of an extraordinary outbreak of Buddhist Art, Literature, Architecture and Spirituality.
Armies were unnecessary on both sides of the Himalayan slopes.
With the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950 and the subsequent flight of the Dalai Lama to India in 1959, the economic and political relations between India and the plateau took another turn and at the end of October 1962, the ancient links were abruptly discontinued with radical consequences for India’s borders.
A Miracle in Road History
Soon after the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) entered Lhasa in September 1951, the Chinese started improving the infrastructure between China and Tibet and building new strategic roads on a war-footing.1
Mao Zedong knew that the only way to consolidate and ‘unify’ China’s new colonies (Tibet and Xinjiang) was to construct a large network of roads2. The work began immediately after the arrival of 18th Army in Lhasa in September 1951. Priority was given to motorable roads: the Sichuan-Tibet3 and the Qinghai-Tibet4 Highways. Surveying for the Tibet-Xinjiang Highway5 cutting across Western Tibet (and the Indian territory in Ladakh) started at the end of 1951; construction began in 1953/54.
On 29 November 1954, Xinhua News Agency reported: “The two large armies of road builders from the eastern and western section of the Sikang-Tibet Highway joined hands on November 27. Sikang-Tibet Highway from Ya-an6 to Lhasa is now basically completed.” The communiqué further mentioned that “gang builders and workers, including about 20,000 Tibetans, covered over 31,000 li on foot in the summer of 1953 and began construction of the 328 km of highway eastwards from Lhasa.” Three weeks later, another report stated that the Qinghai-Tibet Highway was now open to traffic.
The construction of one feeder road leading to Nathu-la, the border pass between Sikkim and Tibet had some strange consequences. India began feeding the Chinese road workers in Tibet, sending tons of rice through this route.
A year later, the first airport in Tibet, located in Damshung, north of Lhasa became functional.
Both the road network and the airports were to play a crucial role not only in what China calls the ‘Liberation of Tibet’, but also today in the so-called ‘stabilization’ of plateau, without forgetting the 1962 border conflict with India.
On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the creation of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), China Tibet Online, a website affiliated to Xinhua said that the 1990s saw “a milestone of transportation development in Tibet. …Following the opening of the two crucial highways 60 years ago, Tibet has become better connected to the outside world.”7
In a message for the occasion, President Xi Jinping called these projects, ‘a miracle in road history’. The Chinese President pleaded for further improvements in transport infrastructure in the TAR: “The two highways have played a vital role in Tibet’s social system, economic and social development, as well as consolidating the southwest frontiers and promoting national unity.”8
The next phase for an infrastructure boom on the Tibetan plateau, at an even faster pace, was the arrival of the Qinghai Tibet Railway in the Tibetan capital in July 2006.
The Tourist Boom
For the past 10 years, the infrastructure on the plateau has developed faster than during the past 1000 years. The railway has had incalculable consequences on what is left of the Tibetan identity, but also the development of ‘Western China’ in general as well as the defence of the borders (with India).
The opening of the railway line, first to Lhasa and later to Shigatse9 has been followed by a deluge of Chinese tourists on the plateau.
In 2015, the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) broke all records; it welcomed more than 20 million tourists. This was officially announced during the ‘Two Sessions’, i.e. the meeting of the Regional People’s Congress and the Consultative Political Conference held early February 2016 in Lhasa.
The tourism industry in the TAR generated 28 billion yuan (4.26 billion U.S. dollars) in 2015, nearly three times the figure of 2010.
Lhasa, Tibet’s capital alone saw its tourism revenue triple over the past five years to an estimated 15.49 billion yuan in 2015. The number of tourists visiting the capital rose to 11.79 million in 2015, a 23 percent increase compared to 2014.
China Tibet News reported that the passenger traffic on the Qinghai-Tibet railway hit 11.934 million in 2015, rising by 3.885 million passengers from 2014. The growth rate reached 48.3%, hitting a new record.
The Chinese website added: “In 2015, tourism in Qinghai and Tibet grows dramatically. Qinghai-Tibet railway company seized the new opportunity and took a series of effective measures to improve its passenger traffic capability. The company added 2,422 passenger trains, 2,992 additional coaches and 1.73 million seats.”10
Because the air is still pure, the sky still blue, the Kyi chu river still clean, millions of mainlanders are attracted to Tibet.
According to the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016 to 2020), Lhasa should receive 24 million Chinese tourists (an annual increase of 15 percent), as well as 300,000 international tourists (an annual increase of 20 percent).
The total revenue from tourism for the Tibetan capital alone is expected to exceed 30 billion yuan (4.6 billion U.S. dollars), accounting for more than 40 percent of Lhasa’s GDP.
The real figures will probably exceed the plans.
For Beijing, the tourist boom is a win-win solution to solve all the problems of the plateau; the Chinese authorities have hence decided to accelerate the infrastructure construction and develop high-end tourism brands with:
- A new railway line Lhasa-Chengdu (in Sichuan); the western leg from Lhasa to Nyingchi to be completed by 2020 will reach the Indian border
- A railway line to Kyirong and Nepal, probably to be continued to Kathmandu and perhaps Lumbini
- A second international airport in Lhasa
- A new terminal for the Nyingchi airport
- A new airport in Nagchu
- A 4-lane highway between Lhasa and Nyingchi
- Improvement of National Highway 219 between Tibet and Xinjiang
- All these projects have strategic implications for India, as ALL infrastructure built on the plateau has a dual use: civilian and military.
Dual Use of the Infrastructure
On April 25, 2016, Xinhua reported that during their bi-monthly session, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC) discussed a new law on national defense transport. The legislation will cover the use of infrastructure for defense as well as civilian purposes.
According to the Chinese news agency: “The new law is expected to regulate the planning, construction, management and use of resources in transportation sectors such as railways, roads, waterways, aviation, pipelines and mail services, for national defense.”11 The idea is to integrate military and civilian resources and make sure that the national defense transport network is compatible “with market and economic development.”
It is what General Zhao Keshi, head of the Logistical Support Department and member of the all-powerful Central Military Commission, told the legislators.
A national authority will be formed with the objective of “overseeing the national defense transport network,” announced the general.
The main players will be the local governments, military departments and more importantly, the newly-created Theater Commands.12
They will be jointly responsible to implement the new law.
Xinhua explains further: “A consultation mechanism will be established between local governments and military departments to disseminate and discuss information on construction plans, ongoing projects and demands.”13
And when the needs occur, civilian transport vehicles and facilities will be pressed into service by the PLA.
The concept behind the new law is that national defense transport should consider the needs of both peace and war times, and vice-versa: when the civilian departments plan for new infrastructure, it should be usable by the PLA.
Interestingly, the national defense considerations will be included in any technical standards and codes for transport facilities and equipments.
Xinhua adds: “No organization or individual is allowed to undermine the proper use and safety of national defense transport projects and facilities.”14
Beijing will be setting up “a strategic projection support force to facilitate efficient organization of long-distance and large-scale national defense transport”.
Though the draft law says that “the expenses for defense transportation missions should be borne by their users and the criteria should not be lower than the market price,” it is not clear who will pay the bill as both the PLA and the civilian administration are the ‘users’.
A Joint Command Organization for national defense transport will be set up in wartime or under special circumstances of peacetime, such as armed conflicts that endanger national sovereignty, says the draft.
The Joint Command will have large powers such as coordination of national or regional resources, organization transport operations, repairs and protection of transport infrastructure and facilities, etc.
With the creation of the Western Theater Command (WTC), regrouping all the units on the Tibetan Plateau (earlier the plateau depended on two Military Regions, namely Chengdu and Lanzhou) and in Xinjiang, the coordination and management of the infrastructure on the ‘Indian’ front will be far easier and more efficient.
Why this Frenzy of Infrastructure Development on the Plateau?
At least three issues explain the infrastructure frenzy on the plateau: (in)stability of the restive region, mega-boom of tourism and as importantly, ‘guarding’ the border with India. Though it is rarely mentioned in the Chinese media, one could add the exploitation of the natural resources of the plateau (like water and minerals).
- Tibet: a Paradise for Tourists. The main pretext for rapidly developing infrastructure has been tourism. According to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, in April 2015, Lhasa was one of the cities with the best air quality in China. The ministry compiled air quality data from 74 major cities. Seven of them, including Lhasa, have met the national standards for best air quality for five main pollutants. The China Daily recently advertized the Roof of the World thus: “Tibet with its mystery is the spiritual Garden of Eden and is longed by travelers’ home and abroad. Only by stepping on the snowy plateau, can one be baptized by its splendor, culture, folklore, life, snow-mountains, sacred lakes, residences with local characteristics and charming landscape.”15 Why would China spend so much time and energy on Tibet if there was not a quick return? Tourism brings tremendous revenues to the regional government and helps in tackling the two other issues.
- ‘Stability’ of the Plateau: In the wake of the 2008 unrest in Tibet, Beijing still seems nervous. On September 7, 2015, soon after the grandiose parade, Yu Zhengsheng, Communist Party Politburo Central Committee (CPPCC) chairman, who was the chief guest, met a large number of representatives from the PLA and the People’s Armed Police Force (PAPF) posted in Tibet. Yu urged the army, the police and the judicial staff “to crack down on separatist forces and be ready to fight a protracted battle against the 14th Dalai clique.”16Yu also asked the defence forces “to improve their abilities of governing Tibet according to law [sic], specifically cracking down on the separatist forces, strengthening social management and protecting the people’s rights.” He also mentioned the stability of the border areas, a leitmotiv of the Chinese leadership’s discourse. For all this, infrastructure is crucial. An article in China Tibet Online entitled ‘Iron and Steel road pierces into plateau tourism’ says: “These world class locations are like pearls embedded along the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, and now because of extensions of the Qinghai-Tibet railroad they are all linked up.” It notes that according to the TAR’s Tourist Bureau there were more than 100,000 Tibetans engaged in tourist services in Tibet in 2015, with their annual incomes are over 10,000 yuans. By providing a decent income to the local Tibetans, China believes it can keep the restive populations relatively happy; in addition, it ‘stabilizes’ the plateau.
- Defending the Border: Last but not the least, the defence of the borders are often mentioned in the Chinese media, during the Tibet Work Forum, Xi reiterated his theory about the ‘border areas’; he said that “a series of strategies have been in effect during the 60-plus years of governing Tibet,” and then cited the theory that “governing border areas is the key for governing a country, and stabilizing Tibet is a priority for governing border areas.17” This speaks for itself.
The Train to the Borders
The railway will soon reach the Nepal Border (Kyirong) and the Indian border in Arunachal Pradesh and possibly the Chumbi Valley adjacent to Sikkim.
Here too tourism is used as the stone which kills several birds. Mainland’s travel agencies promote packages such as “Three-day tour to Nyingchi for enjoying peach blossoms”. The promotions tell the tourists that they will not only “enjoy beautiful scenery but also visit local families and taste unique Tibetan delicacies.”
Let us not forget the main town in Nyingchi prefecture is Bayi.
Bayi, which stands at India’s doors, translates by ‘8-1’, meaning that the area belongs to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) whose anniversary falls on 8-1 or August 1).
Bayi’s Tourism Bureau announced that the district received more than 174,000 tourists from January to March in 2016, up by 53.23 percent.
The Chinese government promotes “Pure Land, Beautiful Nyingchi” or the “The Switzerland of Tibet” or the gorges of the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra).
Beijing says that the area “enjoys unique ethnic culture, biological culture and beautiful scenery. Bayi District has developed rural tourism, folk custom tourism and other forms of tourism.”
While the train will be reaching Nyingchi in 2020, a four-lane highway may be reaching soon. On May 23, China Tibet Online mentioned the ‘World’s most beautiful highway, Lhasa-Nyingchi Super Highway’18 which should be completed in 2017.
A spectacular picture of the road leading to the Indian border is captioned. “Ecology corridor, green gallery, landscape avenue …stunning scenery of the Lhasa-Nyingchi Super Highway attracts lots of people.”
While the Indian Government sticks to its archaic mindset where an antiquated ‘Inner Line Permit’ dating from the days of the Raj still prevails, China is developing its borders at a rapid pace.
Why can’t India emulate Beijing in this field?
The Case of Metok
Located north of Upper Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh, Metok is small county with a population of hardly 11,000 inhabitants. Before the opening of a tunnel in October 2013, Metok was ‘the last county in China not accessible by a highway’.
Metok is situated south of the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra). Xinhua describes the place thus: “The ‘Land of the Hidden Lotus’ lies at an altitude of 1,200 meters. Due to the regional Himalaya fragment belt and the Metok fragment belt, there is frequent geologic movement making it an area often witnessing numerous earthquakes, avalanches, landslides and mudslides. With a humid climate with much rainfall adding to all of this, Metok ended up becoming the last county in China to be connected by road.”19
Can you believe it: two years later, the county received over 70,000 visitors?
China Tibet Online noted that since a highway reached the village of Metok in 2013, “tourism industry has seen rapid development”.
The propaganda invites the Chinese tourists to see the Galongla Waterfall, the wonder of Swallow Pond, the Metok Waterfalls, the Menba suspended tower and other scenic sites, “as well as ‘plant fossil’ spinulosa trees and other such thousands of kinds of plants and animals.”
How many Indian tourists are allowed to visit Tuting/Geling in Upper Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh, located south of Metok, on the banks of the Yarlung Tsangpo river20? A handful at the most!
Would it not be the best way for the Government of India to demonstrate on the ground that Arunachal is part of India?
Xinhua noted that following the opening of the Metok road, the local population has “quickly started moving forward towards a better-off life.”
With one stone, many birds are killed. Since 2013, the length of public roads in the Metok County has reached 270 kilometers21.
It is worth noting that it is in the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo that a mega Three Gorges type of dam, is purported to be planned. The dams constructed and under construction at present are on the River before it enters the gorge of Great Bend.
The opening of roads, the improvement of communication infrastructures as well as the rapid development of the tourist industry could one day facilitate the construction of the dam.
Needless to say that these developments located a few kilometers north of the McMahon Line should be a deeply worrying development for India.
The Railway Line between Lhasa-Chengdu
The new railway between Chengdu and Lhasa is the next mega project for China. The Economist remarked: “Plans for a new railway line into Tibet pose a huge technological challenge—and a political one.”
The London-based publication noted: “A COLOSSAL roller-coaster is how a senior engineer described it. He was talking about the railway that China plans to build from the lowlands of the south-west, across some of the world’s most forbidding terrain, into Tibet. Of all the country’s railway-building feats in recent years, this will be the most remarkable: a 1,600-kilometre track that will pass through snow-capped mountains in a region racked by earthquakes, with nearly half of it running through tunnels or over bridges. It will also be dogged all the way by controversy.”22
Though half as long as the Qinghai-Tibet Railway (QTR), but may take thrice the time to build. The cost is estimated at 105 billion yuan ($16 billion).
The Economist remarks that while Lhasa is about 3,200 metres higher than Chengdu, “yet by the time the track goes up and down on the way there—crossing 14 mountains, two of them higher than Mont Blanc, Western Europe’s highest mountain — the cumulative ascent will be 14,000 metres.”
It does not seem to pose a problem for the Chinese planners.
Once the railway is functional, the entire plateau will be economically and strategically integrated into the Mainland and 100 million Chinese tourists will pour into the Roof of the World every year.
Apart from the projects already mentioned, such as the railway line to Kyirong and Nepal, the second international airport in Lhasa, the new airport in Nagchu, and in parallel, the new Lhasa-Chengdu railway line, smaller projects are presently going on.
For example, the Gonggar Railway Station at the Lhasa Airport is now under construction. Xinhua reported: “At present, station projects of Gonggar Railway Station in Tibet Autonomous Region is stepping up its construction, and expected to be completed by the end of 2016.”
The news agency adds that the new station will be adjacent to 101 Provincial Highway, 15 km distance from Gonggar-Lhasa Airport, “It will provide convenience for many domestic and overseas tourists in and out of Tibet after the completion of the railway station.”
The setting up of a sophisticated electricity grid is progressing at fast pace. According to China Tibet Online: “Key western development projects—the Qinghai-Tibet networking project has been in operation for 5 years, withstanding the cold, low atmospheric pressure, high winds and sand, and other harsh environmental tests. Operations have remained safe and stable, bringing benefits to the people along the ‘bright, heavenly road’ in Qinghai and Tibet.”23
The National Grid Qinghai Electric Power Company provided some data: since its inception, the Qinghai-Tibet networking project has already conveyed 3.3billion kW/h to Tibet, equivalent to 416,900 tons of standard coal transport, which is a reduction in carbon emissions of 1.03 million tons.
More interestingly: “The Qinghai-Tibet D.C. power system successfully carried out reverse-carry loads. The Tibet power grid achieved 332 million kW/h of hydropower delivery during the high water level periods, all of which was consumed within Qinghai Province.”24
It means that once a few dams, now under construction, are operational (particularly on the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra), Tibet will be able to supply China with electricity. The Chinese website further describes the project: “The Qinghai-Tibet networking project is a key western development project. It is also the world’s highest D.C. electricity transmission project and the longest transmission line across frozen ground. Located mostly in a low atmospheric pressure area with a lack of oxygen, cold, high winds, and radioactive hot spots, at an average elevation of 4,500 meters high, the highest elevation point is at 5,300 meters high. More than 900 kilometers of the line are located in areas above 4,000 meters high.”
All this has important strategic implications for India.
The Aksai Chin to Xinjiang
Another large project is renovation of the Xinjiang-Tibet Highway, known in China as National Highway 219 and in India by his infamous name ‘the Aksai Chin road’: infamous because the Nehru government took more than 5 years to discover that the PLA had built a road on Indian territory.
In an article titled ‘Across China: Heavenly road brings the high life to Tibetan Plateau’, Xinhua remarks: “It is the melon season in neighboring Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, fresh fruit is stacked up at the roadside, waiting to be ferried through the Kunlun Mountains and up to the plateau along the Xinjiang-Tibet Highway.”
This road has not only linked the two most strategic (and restive) provinces of China (Tibet and Xinjiang) but also helped to tremendously cut the cost for the occupation of Western China by the PLA.
Xinhua takes an example: “Less than a decade ago, a kilogram of melon could sell for 60 yuan (about 10 U.S. dollars) on the plateau.”
It then quotes Zhang Lei, head of an armed police transport detachment stationed in Ritu County along the highway: “Last year the price was just a little over 10 yuan.”
National Highway 219 is built at an average altitude of over 4,500 meters and is the world’s highest motorable road.
The Chinese news agency gives the historic background: “Originally covered by gravel in 1950s, the 2,340-kilometer highway was almost fully paved by 2013, slashing the travel time between Yecheng County in southern Xinjiang and Ngari Prefecture in Tibet from 15 days to just one day, with another day to reach Lhasa. Accidents and fatalities also decreased dramatically.”25
The article concludes: “The highway today looks to me like an airport runway — wide, flat and smooth – a heavenly road, indeed.”
It is certainly a great boon for the PLA and China’s border management in general.
Xinhua explains: “With a safe, modern highway, transportation costs from Yecheng to Ngari have fallen by 55 percent, leading to cuts of about 40 percent in the price of commodities in the Tibetan town. Better yet, the number of tourists in Ngari has surged five-fold.”
In other words, the PLA’s ‘Indian front’ will get its supplies faster and cheaper.
China is indeed far, far ahead of India in terms of border management and development.
Though it may not be a threat in itself, the tremendous progress made by China on the Tibetan plateau shows that in peace time, it is working hard to prepare for war time.
The time has perhaps come for Delhi to study the happenings on the other side of the LAC. It is particularly important at a time the two former Military Regions of Chengdu and Lanzhou have been merged into one Western Theater Command, greatly improving the management of China’s borders with India. (IDR)
By Claude Arpi