China’s plans on Tibet and border infra will pose a threat to India
Tibet is under the spotlight after the Lianghui, or “Big Two”, as the plenary sessions (March 4-11, 2021) of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) are referred to. Among the documents approved at this session are the 142-page, 70,000-character 14th Five Year Plan (2021-2025) and the Long Range Objectives through the Year 2035 for National Economic and Social Development of the People’s Republic of China.
The document, whose English version is yet to be released, sets out China’s national strategic intent and identifies core areas of national security and development with a definite focus on strategic science and technology programmes in the frontier areas. It approves projects of specific significance to India, shifting them from the realm of speculation, or potential concern, to imminent threats. These will put India under additional military pressure. The recent plenum decisions also reveal that China is turning Tibet into a military redoubt which, within some years, will become a centre of long-term pressure on India.
Setting at rest speculation regarding China’s plans for the Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo), the document confirms that a number of hydroelectric projects will be built along the river’s lower reaches and that a massive dam — three times the size of the Three Gorges Dam in Sichuan province — will be constructed on the Great Bend on the Brahmaputra. The dams to be constructed on the young and fragile Himalayas will pose an ever-present danger to those living downstream, and adversely impact the livelihoods of millions of people who reside in the Indo-Gangetic plain. The related construction activity, as well as a huge influx of labourers, technicians and engineers, will raise temperatures on the Tibetan Plateau and accelerate the retreat of Tibet’s glaciers, which are the source of the Indus and a number of rivers that feed into the Ganga.One consequence will be the reduced flow of water. The Mekong River will be similarly impacted.
Notwithstanding the ongoing talks for reducing tension along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and rebuilding of ties, the 14th Five Year Plan (2021-2025) and the Long Range Objectives-2035 mentions a number of strategic military projects that are planned for completion. Many of these will reinforce China’s existing border defence infrastructure in Tibet and directly augment the capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
The G219 and G331 national highways are to be upgraded and extended to run parallel to the G318 Sichuan-Tibet Highway, which will also be upgraded and runs along China’s borders with India. The transportation network and Tibet’s links to the mainland will be expanded with the completion of the new Chengdu-Lhasa railway line and development of Shigatse (Rikaze), Tibet’s second largest city, as a rail transportation hub. The Chengdu-Lhasa railway will be the second strategic one connecting Tibet to the mainland and will be a high-speed railway.
At least 20 new border airports are planned to be built by 2025. Identified among these are airports at Tashkurgan and Longzi. Tashkurgan is at the extreme west of China and the last stop before the Karakoram Pass. It comes under the jurisdiction of the Hetian Military Sub-District, subordinate to the South Xinjiang Military District. The construction of the airport signals that China is increasing its capabilities in this area. It elevates the level of threat to Daulet Beg Oldi and the Depsang Plains. The additional airport at Longzi in Shannan County will similarly add to the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF)’s capabilities in the middle sector of LAC and the Yadong area.
India will have to contend with a much-improved strategic border defence infrastructure and considerably enhanced Chinese military presence that will pose a long-term potential threat. China’s 14th Five Year Plan and the Long Range Objectives—2035 clearly point to a fraught and possibly dangerous period in India-China relations that lies ahead.
Jayadeva Ranade is former additional secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India, and president, of the Centre for China Analysis and StrategyThe views expressed are personal