24 February 2023

Aksai Chin: Is History Repeating Itself?

On 10 February, China Daily announced Tibet’s plan “to upgrade the regional rail network”. The Development and Reform Commission of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) released a three-phase development plan for the railway on the Tibetan plateau: “The TAR plans to have 4,000 kilometres of rail lines by 2025 and eventually connect all its 55 counties and districts by rail. By 2025, the construction of several railway projects, including the Ya’an-Nyingchi section of the Sichuan-Tibet Railway, the Shigatse-Pakhuktso [Pelkhu Tso near the Nepal border] section of the Xinjiang-Tibet Railway and the Bomi-Ra’uk [Ranwu] section of the Yunnan-Tibet Railway will all see major progress.”

It is the first time that the Xinjiang-Tibet Railway, cutting across the Indian territory in the Aksai Chin area of Ladakh, has been mentioned. What will the Indian government’s response be to this worrying development?

A Road Through Aksai Chin

Remember the 1950s when China started building a road in Aksai Chin, and India kept silent? The work had started in 1953/54, and the ‘highway’ was opened with fanfare in July 1957. However, Delhi only recorded a weak protest…more than a year later, on 18 October 1958. The then Foreign Secretary, Subimal Dutt, wrote to the Chinese ambassador in Delhi: “It had come to the Government of India’s notice that a road had been constructed by the People’s Republic of China across the eastern part of the Ladakh region of J&K State, which is part of India…the completion of which was announced in September 1957 [in fact in July].” The Indian note added: “It is a matter of surprise and regret that the Chinese Government should have constructed a road through indisputably Indian territory without first obtaining the permission of the Government of India and without even informing the Government of India.” That was it. In other words, a green light was given to Mao to continue developing the area.

Already in early 1957, the Indian Army had sent an officer – Lt. Col. RS Basera of 1 Kumaon – with a patrol to physically confirm the reports that China was building a road in the Aksai Chin area. Basera’s son recounted later: “His mission was to be tough, exciting and most unique, as he had to proceed under cover to the vast plateau of Aksai Chin and confirm reports that the Chinese were constructing a motorable road from Kashgar to Lhasa.”

Disguised as a yak herder, Basera and his two companions were instructed by the Military Intelligence (MI) not to carry any documents that could disclose their identities. No notes were to be taken; they were asked to memorise the map and the route. On the third day, one of the herders suddenly pulled Basera’s shoulder and showed him a dark line on the horizon; it was the road. The next morning, they inspected the new ‘highway’ and collected evidence.

Back in Delhi, the defence minister, Krishna Menon, refused to believe the army officer. Instead, he called China a ‘friendly neighbour’. Despite the detailed report of the MI, the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister “more or less rebuked the MI for sending the patrol”. The PM told the defence minister, “No more such patrols were to be sent to Aksai Chin till the matter had been thoroughly investigated,” as such patrols could easily vitiate the good relations between friendly neighbours.

Basera’s son said that his father felt utterly disgusted: “The long and difficult patrol they had undertaken now appeared to have been a futile, month-long exercise.” This time, will India protest against the construction of a railway across its territory?

New Railway Plans

Let us look at the latest Chinese plans. The report cited above asserted: “Improvements to the regional railway network will be of great significance in promoting socioeconomic development and safeguarding national security. …Once these new rail lines become operational, more cities in the region will be accessed by rail services with cities in northwestern and southwestern China, and more railways will be facilitated along the border ports”.

Another Chinese article describes the new railway line and provides its rationale: “Firstly, the Tibet-Xinjiang Railway is the [last] stage to the ultimate completion of China’s railway network …the railway network of China will then be officially completed, and Chinese travel enthusiasts will be able to take a train around the whole of China.”

The second reason for opening this new line is: “It is the final road to stabilise the frontier. The Xinjiang-Tibet Railway, which has been included in the 14th Five-Year Plan, is an integral part of the railway along the border. The construction of the project is of great significance in filling the gaps in the road network along the border, stabilising the border and strengthening national unity.” Clearly, the Tibet-Xinjiang Railway has an important military component; it will be used ‘to stabilise’ the borders, just as the Aksai Chin road (today known as National Highway G219) was in the 1950s and 1960s.

The third objective of the ‘final road’ is to connect Tibet with its neighbours, particularly Nepal: “After the completion of the New Tibet-Xinjiang Railway and the Sichuan-Tibet Railway, all major cities in the mainland can open direct trains to Tibet as well as the southern border areas, and even straight to Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and other countries;” it is called the Lhasa-Shigatse-Kyirong-Kathmandu, a public-rail link.

Finally, the difficulty of the construction of the railway is cited: “It will be the ultimate railway construction in China. According to the plan, the new line will pass through the world-famous Kunlun, Karakorum, Gangdis (Kailash) and Himalayan ranges and is expected to cross more than a dozen glacial rivers along the entire route (probably referring to an extension of the line in Xinjiang) lying along more than a thousand kilometres of Gobi desert, it will run through permafrost and perennially snowy mountains, untouched Changthang grassland and hundreds of miles of uninhabited areas, with the altitude of the entire route expected to be above 4,500 metres and the winter temperature reaching -40°C and oxygen levels only 44% of the Mainland.”

There is no doubt that once completed, the 1,200 km long railway between Shigatse in Central Tibet and Hotan (and later on to Kashgar) in Xinjiang will be the highest in the world.

A Plan for 59 Airports

But that is not all. Another document entitled “General Aviation Development Plan for the Tibet Autonomous Region (2021-2035)” appeared simultaneously, describing the construction of several airports on the Tibetan plateau. The report goes into great detail about the different needs for airports: “emergency rescue, public services, national defence and ‘stability maintenance’ (a euphemism for monitoring the local Tibetan population), short-distance transportation, low-altitude tourism, agriculture, forestry and animal husbandry operations.”

Already in 2018, the Civil Aviation Administration of China had announced the construction of three new airports in Tibet. A communiqué said: “Tourist travel will be more convenient, and economic development in Tibet’s agricultural and pastoral areas will also be assisted.” They will soon be functional in Lhuntse in Lhoka prefecture, in Tingri in Shigatse City, close to the border with Nepal and in Purang, at the Nepal-Tibet-India trijunction.

The immediate objective for the 2025 Plan is to consolidate the aviation infrastructure and “vigorously promote the construction of general aviation airports and supporting facilities…and build 14 new airports in the next two years”. The report gives a chronology of the construction of these airports in Tibet, with the 14 first to be functional by 2025. They are located in Sernya (Nagchu Prefecture), Karok (Shigatse), Zhayul (Nyingchi), Tsada (Ngari), Gerze (Ngari), Yatung (near the Indian State of Sikkim), Tsona (near the Indian border in the North-East), Saga (north of Nepal), Sernye (Nagchu), Rutok (near the Indian border in Ladakh), Bomi (Nyingchi), Mangkang (Chamdo), Sok Dzong (Nagchu) and Kyirong (Nepal Border).

Let us remember that all infrastructure projects in China are built for dual use. From the above list of 14 first airports, it is clear that military use will prevail over civilian ones, bringing little cheer to the Tibetan population. If the plan is implemented, it will have serious strategic implications for the southern neighbours, particularly India.

The question remains: will Delhi protest against the construction of infrastructure, mainly the new railway, on what India considers its territory, or will it adopt a wait-and-watch game? The successful construction of the proposed rail and air infrastructure by China in Tibet will further strengthen the Chinese control of Aksai Chin.

This is a modified version of the article, originally published in the Chanakya Forum, 20 February 2023.