Atul Kumar, Visiting Associate Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies.
On 27 January 2016, Losang Gyaltsen, Chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) government, announced in the TAR’s Tenth People’s Congress that his government would accelerate the construction of the Sichuan-Tibet Railway in the 13th Five Year Plan (2016-20) period. His government promised to start a preliminary survey and research to build the Nyingchi-Kangding railway section, in the current year. Yin Li, the acting Governor of Sichuan, sent out similar messages a week earlier at the Sichuan People’s Congress. These statements from the top leadership of both provinces reflect the importance of this rail project.
China built the first rail route to Tibet (Qinghai Tibet Railway–QTR), connecting Lhasa with Golmud in Qinghai province, in 2006. This rail route significantly enhanced China’s access to its southwestern province and created enormous scope for tourism, commerce, governance and military logistics. Nevertheless, Lhasa remained relatively isolated due to the lack of a rail connection with either Chengdu or Urumqi, its traditional trading destinations. Both Lhasa and Chengdu are connected with the Sichuan-Tibet Highway (part of G318), however, the road trip (2,149 km) takes three-four days and passes through some of the highest snow-covered mountains in the world. The current train journey, a circuitous one through Qinghai, Gansu and Shaanxi provinces, takes about 44 hours covering 3,070 kms. In contrast, the new rail line, which is expected to be built by 2025, will reduce this journey to less than 15 hours. In addition, as Chengdu has been declared the Joint Command Centre for the newly-formed Western Theatre Command, after the recent military reorganisation, it also makes military sense to build a rail connection between both these cities.
This rail connection will be an elevated corridor and hence, it has been termed as the second ‘sky road’ to Tibet after the QTR. The 13th Five Year Plan termed it a key construction project on which, the planned speed would be 160 kmph. The distance of this entire route is 1,629 kilometres, out of which, about 1,000 km is in Tibet. Each kilometre of rail construction on this route will cost US$15.87 million.
The project has been divided into three sections: Lhasa-Nyingchi, Nyingchi-Kangding and Kangding-Chengdu. Work on the western portion is in full swing and the eastern section’s construction has also started. Only the middle section awaits the preliminary survey and research. In addition, the rail route will navigate through high mountains, major rivers and seismic fault zones, at an average of 2,000 meters above the sea level. Chinese construction workers on the sites have complained of low oxygen, high altitude and complex geography related dangers.
The rail route is quite important for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI/OBOR) as this rail line can be extended to connect the Chinese mainland with Europe. Chengdu is a key node on the Yixin’ou Railway Corridor that intends to connect China’s Pacific Coast with Europe. Initial travel was done by a train that left Yiwu in December 2014, reached Madrid and returned to China in 2015, after completing a 26,580 kms journey on this corridor. Therefore, China has justified this new rail-link as crucial in the economic upliftment of its backward western region.
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Additionally, the Chinese government has dismissed all claims of potential environmental damage and cultural danger to ethnic Tibetans, due to this upcoming rail line. Sonam Dorje, a director of the Tibetan Regional Committee in the CPPCC reiterated that the rail line would help boost tourism and economic growth of this region. He argued that Tibet has enormous deposits of solar power, hydropower, wind power and geothermal power but only one percent has so far been developed. Therefore, Tibet requires development not protection of its resources.
Furthermore, the rail route has significant military importance as the link is crucial for the PLA, which is undergoing major organisational transformation at present. With the Western Theatre Command’s Joint Command Centre in Chengdu and the army command in Lanzhou, a rail connection will facilitate rapid mobilisation of troops from Chengdu, for suppressing internal disturbances, humanitarian assistance/disaster relief missions and for potential military action on China’s southwestern borders. Keeping in mind the Chinese tactical military principle in Tibet of “lighter in the front, heavier at the back”, the rail route can be extremely helpful in the movement of motorised combat units and artillery units including China’s rocket forces. Additionally, this railway line would, in logical certainty, be followed by a rail connection between Lhasa and Urumqi. That would connect Chengdu to Urumqi through Lhasa, amplifying Indian security concerns because this could well run parallel to the border with India or even through Aksai China.
Finally, the construction of this rail line will facilitate the extraction of raw materials from Tibet to the industrial heartlands in east and south China, which would further encourage the demographic shift of Han people to sparsely populated but culturally sensitive southern Tibetan highlands. Therefore, the Sichuan-Tibet railway line and other major infrastructure projects on Tibet’s permafrost will likely transform the Himalayan strategic landscape and South Asia’s ecological balance.