You are here

Strategic Implications of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway

Dr. Abanti Bhattacharya is Associate Professor at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi. Prior to this she was Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
  • Share
  • Tweet
  • Email
  • Whatsapp
  • Linkedin
  • Print
  • July 07, 2006

    On July 1, 2006 China inaugurated the world's highest railway - a 710-mile (1,956 kms) line connecting Golmud with Lhasa. It traverses 550 kms of unstable permafrost, reaching the heights of 16,400 feet above sea level, and completes the journey in forty-eight hours. The inauguration coincided with two other big anniversaries: the 85th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party and the 10th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover from British rule. The completion of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway (QTR) project is central to China's Great Western Development Policy, which aims at greater economic development of the country's under-developed Western areas populated by ethnic minorities. This policy is also commensurate with greater 'Hanization' of China's West. In fact, the railway line is not only aimed at taming this region but also at promoting the cause of Chinese nationalism and great power status.

    The idea of a railway line from China into Tibet was first proposed by Sun Yatsen in the nineteenth century and it was later revived under Communist rule in the 1950s. Construction of the first section of the railway line (814 kms), the Xining-Golmud section, started in 1958. After grinding to a halt during the Cultural Revolution, work on it was resumed only in the reform era in 1979. It was finally opened to traffic in 1984. The latter section of this project, the Golmud-Lhasa line, was mooted in 2001 under the 10th Five-Year Plan, which allocated 26.2 billion yuan for its construction. Though the target date for completion was initially set for 2007, the project has been completed much ahead of schedule.

    Reports suggest that the QTR will facilitate an increase in the movement of products up to forty five times its current level and cut down transport costs for goods by seventy five per cent. Further, two freight trains would run daily from Xining (capital of Qinghai Province) to Lhasa, facilitating the movement of grain crops, construction materials as well as production and living necessities into Tibet, while handicrafts and agricultural products would move the other way. With faster transportation, the QTR will also help to establish mining and manufacturing industries in the remote areas of Qinghai and Tibet. China Daily reports that the greatest impact would, however, be felt in the tourism sector with revenues expected to double by 2010 in Tibet. An unconfirmed Chinese report suggests that Beijing has also undertaken the building of three more railway lines in Tibet in the next ten years as extensions of the QTR, which would link Lhasa with Nyingchi in the east and Xigaze in the west, while the third would link Xigaze with Yadong - a major trading town on the India-China border. All these are likely to further increase mobility and facilitate economic growth in land-locked Tibet.

    A closer look into China's Great Western Development Policy suggests that the infrastructure development in Tibet, including the QTR, forms the linchpin of China's nationalism project. It underscores the core of Deng Xiaoping's minority policy, which emphasized on economic development to solve the nationality question. Also, according to Deng, since Tibet is a big area with a small population, its development by Tibetans alone would not be possible. The Han Chinese, therefore, should help in its economic development. Accordingly, Deng justified the influx of Han Chinese into Tibet as a necessary step to promote economic development. Economic prosperity, it was believed, would quell the minority's resistance to Han Chinese and prevent them from secessionism.

    Following Deng Xiaoping, Hu Jintao also advocated a policy of generating economic prosperity to eradicate separatism. Hailing the infrastructural development in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) as a national security strategy, Hu said, "Rapid economic development is the fundamental condition for realising the interests of all ethnic groups in Tibet and also the basic guarantee for greater ethnic unity and continued stability there." The QTR, is thus, envisaged as a means to assimilate the Tibetan minority population into the Chinese mainstream and fulfil the goal of Chinese nationalism.

    Moreover, the QTR has facilitated Beijing's projection of its great power status. As Hu Jintao noted, "The project is not only a magnificent feat in China's history of railway construction, but also a great miracle of the world's railway history." By undertaking such an engineering marvel, Beijing seeks to portray itself as a great power that could overcome "three major difficulties to rewrite the world's history of railway construction." The three difficulties have been identified as frozen tundra, high altitude and environmental hazards.

    It may be argued that the construction of the QTR is primarily predicated on developing strategic and defence structures in the TAR. The rationale for building roads and railways in the TAR is essentially "military and strategic-oriented," while economic benefits emanating from them are mainly "side effects". In fact, most of the money invested in Tibet so far has gone into the development of strategic roads and railways. By late 1996 China had built 15 trunk highways and 375 feeder roads with a total length of 22,000 kms. The purpose was to establish strategic links through highways connecting central Tibet and China, and extending the links to Xigaze and Gangze - two important places in central western Tibet. Further, highways were established to link the Tibetan-Himalayan borders. The strategic salience of the QTR is also evident in China's counter-terrorism measures in the TAR. There are more than 40,000 troops in the TAR, though the Tibetan exile government puts the figure at 250,000. They are employed to stamp out any kind of Tibetan resistance. The QTR can thus be said to form a part of China's defence and strategic policy, and many Tibetans fear that it will bring no direct positive benefits for them.

    Furthermore, there are apprehensions that the QTR would speed up Han migration into the TAR and marginalise the local Tibetans. New economic opportunities have already attracted migrant workers from China's large mobile population to Tibetan areas with the result that there was a net increase in the non-Tibetan share of the TAR population from approximately 4 per cent in 1990 to 6 per cent in 2000. This trend is likely to intensify with the opening of the new railway line. Lhasa is now largely a Chinese city swarming with Han Chinese and dotted with Chinese style buildings. In addition, the tourism industry in the TAR is tightly controlled by the Han Chinese, is heavily concentrated in the Han-dominated urban areas, and remains out of reach of the rural Tibetans. Further, the Qinghai-Tibet railway involves state-owned construction companies from outside Tibet. The ownership of the railroad is also likely to remain with the national government, which is the main investor. Devoid of local ownership and dependent on central subsidies, the fruits of the QTR are thus not likely to reach the eighty-five per cent rural population of Tibet. It is also feared that the railway line may cause severe environmental problems and ecological imbalances. Given all the above, it is no wonder that the Dalai Lama sees the opening of the Qinghai-Tibet railway line as a Chinese plot to 'liberate' Tibet a second time.

    In fact, China's Western Development Policy has a lot to do with Tibet's strategic location, which is also a factor in Sino-Indian relations. China aims to achieve a strategic capability vis-à-vis India through this railway project. In military terms, the rail link gives Beijing the capability to mobilize up to 12 divisions in a month. Though China does not pose a direct military threat to India today, its strategic infrastructure in Tibet will enhance its military capability and would potentially enable it to coerce India on the border dispute.