Chinese PLA conducting live drill in the plateaus of Tibet autonomous region

China intends to rapidly militarise Tibet which, within a few years, will become a centre of long-term pressure on India

by Jayadeva Ranade

While China is keeping India engaged in protracted and seemingly stalled talks on military disengagement in Ladakh, the Chinese leadership is investing vast sums in boosting its defence capabilities. This includes upgrading the military infrastructure along the border with India. The plenary sessions (March 4-11, 2021) of China’s National People's Congress (NPC) its version of a parliament and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) its top political advisory body - approved these plans.

Particularly important for India is 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”. Its English version is yet to be released. Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed the ‘Long Range Objectives-2035’ and approved its final draft. The document clarifies China’s national strategic intent and identifies core areas of national security and development. It has a definite focus on strategic science and technology programmes in frontier areas. The document details projects that have direct implications for India.

Approval of these projects shapes imminent conventional and non-conventional threats which will put India under additional pressure. The plenum decisions clearly reveal that China intends to rapidly militarise Tibet which, within a few years, will become a centre of long-term pressure on India.

Of direct concern is the decision to construct a massive dam on the Great Bend on the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra), setting at rest many years of speculation about China’s plans. Serious discussions on diverting the waters of the Brahmaputra started in the Chinese Academy of Engineering Physics in Beijing in 1995. Details of a comprehensive plan emerged in a book authored by former military officer Li Ling titled ‘Tibet water can save China’ and published in 2005. The “14th Five Year Plan (2021-2025) and the Long Range Objectives -2035” confirms that a number of hydroelectric projects will be built along its lower reaches and a massive dam three times the size of the Three Gorges Dam in Sichuan province will be constructed on the Great Bend on the Yarlung Tsangpo!

The dams constructed on the fragile Himalayas will pose a constant danger to those living downstream and adversely impact the livelihoods of over a billion people residing in the Indo-Gangetic plain. The planned infrastructure projects in Tibet and the anticipated huge influx of labour and engineers will raise temperatures on the Tibetan Plateau and accelerate the retreat of Tibet’s glaciers. These glaciers are the source of the Indus and a number of rivers that feed into the Ganges. This will seriously reduce the flow of water even leading to the rivers drying up.

The 14th Five Year Plan (2021-2025) and Long Range Objectives -2035 additionally identifies a number of strategic military projects for completion by 2025 and 2035. These will reinforce China’s border defence infrastructure in Tibet and directly augment the People's Liberation Army (PLA)’s capabilities. The G318 Sichuan-Tibet Highway and G219 and G331 national highways will be upgraded and, more significantly, extended to run along China’s southwestern border.

China is expanding railway connectivity between Tibet and the Mainland. The new 1,800-km Chengdu-Lhasa railway will be the second strategic railway connecting Tibet to the Mainland. It will be a high-speed railway reducing travel time from Chengdu to Lhasa to 10 hours! Shigatse (Rikaze), Tibet’s second-largest city, will emerge as a rail transportation hub. The document revealed that work has begun on railways to link Shigatse with Jilong in Guizhou province and Hotan in Xinjiang.

Conscious of the vulnerability of its airpower, China plans to construct at least 20 new border airports by 2025. Included are airports at Tashkurgan and Longzi. Tashkurgan, the last stop before the Karakoram Pass, is under the jurisdiction of the South Xinjiang Military District. It elevates the threat to Daulat Beg Oldi and the Depsang Plains. The airport at Longzi in Tibet’s Shannan County will similarly add to the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF)'s capabilities in the middle sector of the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

In just over a decade China will have a much-improved strategic border defence infrastructure. The considerably enhanced Chinese military presence will be a long-term potential threat. China’s 14th Five Year Plan and the Long Range Objectives -- 2035 clearly point to a tense and uneasy phase ahead in India-China relations.