Xi Jinping’s Tibet visit should worry India
China’s President Xi Jinping arrived at Nyingchi’s Mainling Airport in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) on July 21 at the start of a two-day visit, without prior public notice and amid stringent security. He was escorted throughout the tour by TAR party secretary, Wu Yingjie, and chairman of the TAR government, Che Dalha.
The importance of the visit was highlighted by the inclusion of three politburo members and General Zhang Youxia, vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission in Xi’s entourage. Its main focus was on implementation of the 14th Five Year Plan, the party’s policy initiatives in TAR, and the military.
The visit, which took place in the midst of high military tensions between India and China, has implications for New Delhi.
Xi’s decision to start his tour from Nyingchi Prefecture, opposite India’s Arunachal Pradesh, is significant. Official Chinese maps include most of Arunachal within the administrative boundaries of Nyingchi Prefecture. Relevant in this context are Xi’s insistent calls for the “rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation and recovery of territories claimed to have been lost by the imposition of unequal treaties by hostile foreign powers.
Nyingchi is also important for the presence of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) units, border defence regiments and missile bases. It is the gateway for the railway linking Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, with Lhasa, the capital of TAR. Once completed, this will be the second railway connecting Lhasa and Shigatse to other provinces in the mainland. It will reduce travel time between Chengdu and Lhasa to 10 hours from the current 30-odd hours. The world’s largest dam being built at the Great Bend on the Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo) is also in Nyingchi.
China’s leadership has paid special attention to the strategically important Chengdu-Lhasa railway. During this visit, Xi went to Linzhi railway station, an important hub station of the Sichuan-Tibet railway, on July 22, for a briefing on the overall plan of the Sichuan-Tibet railway and of the Lhasa-Nyingchi section. He was briefed on the ongoing construction of the crucial Ya’an-Nyingchi section. Xi pointed out that the planning and construction of the Sichuan-Tibet railway is a major measure to promote the development of Tibet and improve people’s livelihoods. He later travelled by the Fuxing (bullet) train to Lhasa.
Economic issues and the implementation of proposed reforms ranked high on Xi’s agenda. Liu He, politburo member, vice-premier and director of the office serving the Chinese Communist party (CCP)’s Central Financial and Economic Affairs Commission, and He Lifeng, minister of the important National Development and Reform Commission, would have reviewed the projects earmarked for TAR in China’s 14th Five Year Plan and Long Range Objectives. These include defence infrastructure-related projects such as the 20 “general purpose” border airports and upgradation and extension of two additional highways along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
Other major projects are the construction of numerous smaller dams along the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra), and the massive dam at the Great Bend on the river. The likely impact of the influx of large numbers of workers and technicians from the mainland for these projects into sparsely populated Tibet would have been on the agenda.
General Zhang Youxia’s presence confirmed the visit’s military content. After greeting military personnel and veterans at Lhasa, Xi addressed a separate meeting attended by nearly a thousand PLA and PLA Air Force officers. Among those identified as attending were the Western Theatre Command commander, its political commissar, the commander of the Tibet Military Region and its political commissar.
Xi thanked them for their “large contribution to the nation in terms of security and unification along with ensuring peace and stability in Tibet”. He urged “the army to be committed to the Party and its ideology” and focus on becoming “a formidable force”. Declaring that they have already passed the difficult challenge of Tibet’s harsh climate and environment and done a good job of protecting the country, Xi asserted “they need to continue training hard and prepare for future wars”. The prevailing situation along the LAC in Ladakh and future operations would almost certainly have been discussed.
Keeping Tibetan sentiments in mind, Xi visited the Potala Palace, Barkhor and Drepung monastery in Lhasa. He also called on veteran 81-year-old Tibetan Party cadre, Phakpa Lha Gelek Namgyal.
Xi Jinping’s visit has given a definite impetus to the policies being implemented in TAR. In the course of the visit, he spoke of environmental and ecological protection. Xi reinforced the CCP’s directives and stressed the necessity of “blending ethnic groups”, “adapting Tibetan Buddhism to socialism with Chinese characteristics” and ensuring the loyalty of party members. He emphasised promoting Mandarin as the primary language in ethnic schools in TAR, development of the transport network including railways and highways, the security of Tibet’s borders, and building border defence villages.
Xi’s visit will give a major push to the socio-economic changes planned for TAR. India should carefully assess its implications and be prepared for increased military activity on LAC, including opposite Nyingchi and Shigatse.
Jayadeva Ranade is former additional secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India and is presently president of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy
The views expressed are personal