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With an Eye Toward India, China Bolsters Military Infrastructure Development in Tibet

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With an Eye Toward India, China Bolsters Military Infrastructure Development in Tibet

A new 80 billion yuan investment in TAR infrastructure is part of Beijing’s long-term strategic design for handling internal and external threats.

With an Eye Toward India, China Bolsters Military Infrastructure Development in Tibet
Credit: Depositphotos

On January 11, China announced an 80 billion yuan ($11.2 billion) investment to boost key infrastructure such as airports, railways, and highways in Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) by the year 2035. This was disclosed through a government work report released after the second meeting of the 12th People’s Congress of the Autonomous Region..

Besides China’s expansionist policies, the massive infrastructure buildup in TAR is being driven by both external and internal threats, as Tibetans continue to resist Chinese domination. These massive strategic investments not only substantiate India’s growing concerns but also vindicate claims from the Tibetan diaspora that infrastructure developments in Tibet are a major instrument of repression, primarily serving Beijing’s strategic and expansionist designs. 

Strategically, this major announcement fits within the broader objective of Beijing’s aim to  establish a highly effective and expansive three-dimensional transportation network in the Tibet Autonomous Region, connecting it with other regions in China and also with other countries in South Asia. Beijing’s long-term infrastructure plan also solidifies its military’s ground and logistic network and air infrastructure, boosting the realization of the Chinese People Liberation Army’s strategic layout of the Tibet Military Region (TMR) by 2035. 

The People’s Liberation Army was restructured into theater commands in 2016. The Western Theater Command (WTC) consists of the Tibet Military Region, Xinjiang Military Region, 76th and 77th Group Army, and is primarily tasked with addressing security threats stemming from India, especially along the disputed Sino-Indian border. 

The PLA’s strategic plan for the Tibet Military Region aims to internally connect all the PLA units under the WTC stationed within TMR and externally connect with other forces under other theater commands. Infrastructure developments within the TAR are part of this strategic vision.

According to the TAR’s government work report, the 80 billion yuan will go toward three sectors: air, rail, and roads. In terms of air transport, the plan calls for 10 new general airports and 47 temporary take-off and landing points. For railways, the funding will go toward the Tibet section of the Sichuan-Tibet Railway, electrification renovation projects for the Bomi-Ranwu section of the Yunnan-Tibet Railway, and electrification renovation projects for the Gela section of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. Three road projects are identified: construction of the Medog to Chayu section of National Highway G219, an upgrade and renovation of National Highway G318, and opening of the entire Lhasa-Shigatse (Lashi) Expressway to traffic.

These projects are in keeping with the 14th Five Year Plan of Tibet Autonomous Region, released in 2021. The plan laid out Beijing’s long-term objective (through 2035) of strengthening TAR’s transportation and logistics infrastructure system by building a comprehensive, three-dimensional transportation network based on railways, high-grade highways, and airports

Critically, the national development plans enshrined in the 14th Five Year Plan were designed along the lines of China’s military development strategy, as remarked by Xi Jinping’s speech to the PLA and Armed Police Force in 2020. Fan Xiaojun, the political commissar of the Northern Theater Command, also stated that the purpose of the 14th Five Year Plan is for military construction and preparation for war to integrate peacetime and wartime support systems. 

The Aviation Development Plan in TAR 

The People’s Government of TAR work report released on January 11 specifically mentioned that the major allocation of 80 billion yuan will prioritize the construction of 10 new general airports and 47 temporary take-off and landing points in 2024. The construction of 10 new general airports is part of the General Aviation Development Plan of Tibet Autonomous Region (2021-2035), which aims to construct 59 new general airports, seven new transport airports, and 200 aprons in TAR by 2035. 

Beijing’s long-term aviation development plan has clear military orientations, with the major aim of building military air infrastructure. The General Aviation Development Plan of TAR states that the construction of airports in the border areas of the region will be prioritized to form the “national security barriers” providing strong support for the military force. As shown in the following table, the 59 planned general airports are strategically placed in the counties of TAR along the China-India border. 

Moreover, the General Aviation Development Plan of TAR has clearly stated the planned airports will actively engage in military flight activities under the public services classification, including national defense stability maintenance, emergency rescue missions, border defense and surveillance, and short-distance transportation. 

After the completion of general airport construction, the PLA’s Army Aviation Brigades of Tibet Military Region and other aviation units of the Western Theater Command will play a key role in mobilization and spearheading PLA’s military operations along the India-China borders.

Made with Flourish

The Railways and Roadways Development Plan in TAR

The rest of the 80 billion yuan investment will be allotted to accelerate the completion of major rail and road development projects in the Tibet Autonomous Region. The railways and roadways are expected to strengthen the PLA’s ground and logistical network in TAR. 

The main focus of the railway projects in TAR this year will be to fast-track the construction of the TAR section of the Sichuan-Tibet Railway and to start electrification renovation projects for the Bomi-Ranwu section of Yunnan-Tibet Railway and Gela Section of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. 

These railway projects have clear military implications for India. Internally, the rail network will connect all the Western Theater Command’s units within TAR, and externally it connects the WTC with other theater commands. The ramping up of construction of the Sichuan-Tibet and renovation of the Qinghai-Tibet railway will strengthen the connectivity and logistic network between the Tibet Military Region with the PLA units under the 76th and 77th Group Army, stationed in Sichuan and Qinghai province.

The renovation of the Bomi-Ranwu section of the Yunnan-Tibet Railway will facilitate the connection of all critical areas of Tibet along the borders from Xinjiang toward Lhasa and Nyingchi to all the major cities of Yunnan province. Yunnan is the home to major PLA brigades under the 75th Group Army of the Southern Theater Command, including the infantry, artillery, air defense, and armored brigades stationed across cities like Dali, Kunming, Kaiyuan, and Lancang, etc. 

Suyash Desai has argued that the Bomi-Ranwu section of the Yunnan-Tibet Railway will allow rapid mobilization of these PLA units under the 75th Group Army stationed in Yunnan on the India-China border in TAR during possible future military clashes. Critically, the Yunnan-Tibet Railway will also be used by PLA Rocket Force units stationed in Yunnan, such as the 96824 Unit stationed in the Xiaoshiba District of Kunming. 

The underlined railway projects come under China’s major railway planning document, the Tibet Autonomous Region 14th Five-Year Plan Mid- and Long-term Railway Network Plan. Overall, the plan envisions building a railway network of about 5,948 kilometers running through all the border areas of TAR, connecting all prefectures and 55 counties of TAR internally and externally with all nearby provinces such Sichuan, Gansu, Qinghai, Yunnan, and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and ultimately with the main railway network across China by 2035. 

As per the railway construction projects under the Mid- and Long-term Railway Network Plan, the layout of the railway network was designed to first and foremost connect all the border areas of TAR, including the India-China border, via new and planned railways. Again, this effort will accommodate the PLA’s strategic design, as exemplified by the construction and expansion of the Yunnan-Tibet Railway, Xinjiang-Tibet Railway, Sichuan-Tibet Railway, and Qinghai-Tibet Railway. China’s mammoth railway construction plans in TAR are set to be completed in 2035, which includes 10 major projects to build new railway lines, three major reconstruction and expansion projects, and one new railway branch line. 

Made with Flourish

The comprehensive three-dimensional transportation network in TAR would be incomplete without the roadway plans as funded under the 80 billion yuan announced on January 11. In 2024, road projects such as the Shiquanhe Town to Kunsha Airport section of highway G4218, the Medog to Chayu section of highway G219, and the upgrade and renovation of highway G318, and opening of the Lhasa-Shigatse (Lashi) Expressway will be rapidly accelerated with the planned investment.

Roadway development in TAR is also part of broader Beijing’s plan, as outlined in the Fifth National Highway Network Plan issued in July 2022. 

Implications for India and Beyond

After the infamous Galwan Valley clash with India in 2020, the Chinese army has attempted to capture numerous Indian military border posts, leading to continuous violent clashes, as per the latest reports. Examples of China’s military excursions against the Indian Army since the Galwan clash include PLA soldiers attacking the Indian Army post in Shankar Tekri along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) on January 7, 2022. Another clash ensued when about 50 PLA soldiers tried to cross the LAC at Atari Post on November 27, 2022. All these events are worrying, given the potential for such clashes to escalate into a broader war. 

Regardless of the ongoing border peace talks between India and China, the disputed border region remains the most conflict-prone area and a key flashpoint in Asia, where “politics, proximity, and paranoia” raise the possibility of escalation. By 2035, after all the military infrastructure and construction in TAR laid down in the long-term plan are completed, Beijing will be more than prepared to launch a massive military operation against neighboring countries along its western frontier. 

The recent ramping up of the construction of military infrastructure is part of Beijing’s aim to gain an absolute advantage against Indian forces along the border and will massively strengthen the PLA’s transportation, logistical capabilities, and overall combat readiness in TAR. Therefore, infrastructure development plans under the 14th Five Year Plan for Tibet Autonomous Region have major strategic implication not only for India and its neighbors but also for the international order.