Will Beijing’s efforts to enhance connectivity with isolated parts of Tibet put a chill on the recent thaw in ties with New Delhi?

State media has revealed that China plans to build three new airports along Tibet’s rugged southern border, an area dubbed the “Roof of the world”.

New airports are planned in Lhoka, Xigaze and Ngari, which border India, Bhutan and Nepal, and an additional runway is also envisaged at the capital Lhasa’s airport. The projects, referred to collectively as the “3+1”, have a total price tag of 16.7 billion yuan (US$2.6 billion). They are slated for completion by 2021 to spur air travel, trade and tourism, according to a People’s Daily report that cited a Chinese Civil Aviation Administration official.

But India claims large chunks of land in Lhoka, known as ‘Shannan’ in Mandarin, a prefecture-level city in southeastern Tibet that borders India and Bhutan on the south, was territory that formerly belonged to Arunachal Pradesh state. The disputed area, around 28,700 square kilometres in size, is not far away from Doklam Plateau and the valley that sits at the junction of Tibet, Bhutan and India’s Sikkim state.

Doklam was the scene of a military standoff between the two Asian giants, who assembled troops and weaponry in the area last year after Beijing tried to widen a road in the area.

However, ties have improved recently. Beijing and New Delhi agreed to a détente after Narendra Modi met with Xi Jinping in China three times since September last year. The Indian PM was in Qingdao last weekend for the annual Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting.

The new airport in Lhoka was proposed long ago in Beijing’s 13th Five-year Plan (2016-20) but it’s feared that Beijing’s military posturing and its decision to press ahead with the project at such a juncture may anger New Delhi, after it pledged to avoid further militarization of the Doklam region – in exchange for a reciprocal response from Beijing.

Doklam, Lhoka

Lhoka in southern Tibet is close to the Doklam Plateau

Ngari prefecture in northwestern Tibet includes part of the Aksai Chin area, which New Delhi has also been demanding that Beijing should pull its troops out of – to end its “illegal occupation”.

Beijing has been expediting the ‘3+1’ projects, with a feasibility report approved in April.

But it’s hard to believe that the new airports to be built near the Indian border at elevations of thousands of meters – a hefty investment that would take a long time to recoup from a commercial perspective – would only be used for civil aviation.

The projects are similar to Beijing’s installation of long-range radars, and reportedly an anti-missile shield to eavesdrop and fend off an Indian attack should the two nations come to blows again, on the strategic Yading airstrip in western Sichuan province, which began operation in 2013 as a civil airport.