This blog has often mentioned the infrastructure development on the Tibetan plateau.
To give a few examples:
- Airport infrastructure on the Tibetan Plateau
- The train to Shigatse
- The new railway line to Kyirong
- The new railway line to Nyingchi/Nyingtri
- The 4-way lane to Nyingchi
- The forthcoming Sichuan-Tibet railway line
- 'Comprehensive' infrastructure development on the Roof of the World
- China loves Tibet: 60 million visitors in 2015
At least three issues explain the infrastructure frenzy on the plateau: (in)stability of the restive region, mega-boom of tourism and as importantly, ‘guarding’ the border with India.
Though it is rarely mentioned in the Chinese media, one could add the exploitation of the natural resources of the plateau (like water and minerals).
(i) Tibet: a Paradise for TouristsThe main pretext for rapidly developing infrastructure has been tourism. According to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, in April 2015, Lhasa was one of the cities with the best air quality in China. The ministry compiled air quality data from 74 major cities. Seven of them, including Lhasa, have met the national standards for best air quality for five main pollutants.
The China Daily recently advertized the Roof of the World thus: “Tibet with its mystery is the spiritual Garden of Eden and is longed by travelers home and abroad. Only by stepping on the snowy plateau, can one be baptized by its splendor, culture, folklore, life, snow-mountains, saint mountains, sacred lakes, residences with local characteristics and charming landscape.”
Why should China spend so much time and energy on Tibet if there was not a quick return?
Tourism brings tremendous revenues to the regional government.
(ii) Stability of the PlateauIn the wake of the 2008 unrest in Tibet, Beijing is nervous.
On September 7, 2015, soon after the grandiose parade to mark the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), Yu Zhengsheng, CPPCC chairman, who was the chief guest, met a large number of representatives from the PLA and the People’s Armed Police Force (PAPF) posted in Tibet.
Yu urged the army, the police and the judicial staff “to crack down on separatist forces and be ready to fight a protracted battle against the 14th Dalai clique.”
Yu also asked the defence forces “to improve their abilities of governing Tibet according to law [sic], specifically cracking down on the separatist forces, strengthening social management and protecting the people's rights.”
He also spoke of the stability of the border areas, a leitmotiv of the Chinese leadership’s discourse.
For all this, infrastructure is crucial.
(iii) Defending the BorderThough borders are often mentioned in the Chinese media, during the Tibet Work Forum, Xi reiterated his theory about the ‘border areas’; he said that “a series of strategies that have been in effect during the 60-plus years of governing Tibet," he then cited the theory that "governing border areas is the key for governing a country, and stabilizing Tibet is a priority for governing border areas.”
This speaks for itself.
Though it is rarely mentioned in the Chinese media, one could add the exploitation of the natural resources of the plateau (like water and minerals), also explains the 'frenzy'.
60 millions in 2015 and then?
Looking at incomplete Chinese statistics, one can deduct that 60 millions Chinese mainlanders, visited the TAR and the surrounding 'Tibet-inhabited' areas of Sichuan, Gansu, Qinghai and Yunnan in 2015.
One can predict that the tourism boom will continue in 2016 and new records will be broken.
What will be the implications for India if 100 millions drop by, on the plateau in 2020?
Implications for India
A hundred millions Chinese on the Tibet plateau is a lot.
It can only bring new security concerns to India.
First and foremost, the development of the above mentioned infrastructure will be greatly boosted and let us not forget that infrastructure in China has dual use (civilian and military).
Passing from 60 to 100 million will definitively have serious consequences for the last two issues mentioned above, namely the ‘stability’ of the plateau and the ‘defence of the borders’.
The fast development of Western Tibet (Ngari) and Nyingchi/Nyingtri area will put pressure on India’s borders in Ladakh and Arunachal respectively.
• Development of Western TibetJust take the area around Mount Kailash and Lake Mansarovar.
Some 470,000 pilgrims visited the region in 2015.
The Chinese propaganda says: “For pilgrims, circling either site is a great honor and the fulfillment of a lifelong desire. Tibetan Buddhists believe that features such as mountains and lakes are living entities and are born in a certain year of the animal zodiac. …They believe the journey will wash away the sins of one lifetime and bring prosperity.”
The figure of 470,000 tourists represents a rise of more than 50 percent from 2013. Some 30,000 are foreign tourists (Nepal, India, etc).
in 2014, Deng Xiaogang, the TAR Deputy Party Secretary (responsible for the law and order, security and police in the TAR) visited Ngari Prefecture for several months. The objective of his visit was probably to survey future developments in the area.
Tourism can give a tremendous boost to the region; first around Shigatse and then in the vicinity of the new landport with Nepal, in Kyirong.
More remote places near the Indian border (Tholing, Tsaparang, Rutok, Ngari for example) will be developed.
This, of course, poses serious security problems to India, mainly due to the proximity of the border of Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh.
• Development of Nyingchi/Nyingtri areaIn November 2014, Xinhua announced that the National Development and Reform Commission had approved the plan for a Lhasa to Nyingchi section of the Sichuan-Tibet railway which will run 402 km from Nyingchi to Xierong, a stop on the Lhasa-Shigatse line.
Xinhua said that the project will cost 36.6 billion yuan (6 billion US dollars); it will take seven years to complete (2021). The line is designed for a speed of 160 km per hour for passenger trains.
The cargo capacity will be 10 million tons per year.
The tourism boom will then take much larger proportions than today.
One can imagine the strategic implications of the new railway line reaching right to the Arunachal borders.
Another implication is that it will greatly help the construction of large hydropower projects and why not a mega one in the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra.
• Railway to Kyirong and NepalWhat will be the consequences of the larger inflow of tourists in Nepal?
Economically, the new border infrastructure in Kyirong will undoubtedly benefit both sides, Tibet and Nepal.
Chinese tourists and goods have started pouring into Nepal through the Lhasa-Shigatse railway line and then the highway between Shigatse and Kyirong (a branch of the highly-strategic G219 highway linking Tibet to Xinjiang, i.e. the Aksai Chin Road).
After 2020, the railway line to Kyirong will be extensively used to link Nepal to the plateau. Already in 2014, a Chinese website announced that the Kyirong Port would be built into a tourist destination.
Nepal could also turn towards Tibet/China for the supply of essential commodities, which will be in demand with the increasing arrival of Chinese tourists.
The earthquake earlier in April 2015 delayed the operations of the land port, however, The South China Morning Post reported that China has already provided fuel to Nepal via Kyirong ‘amid undeclared blockade by India’.
Quoting Agence France-Presse (AFP) in Kathmandu, the article says: “China will supply Nepal with 1.3 million litres of fuel to ease crippling shortages after protests over a new constitution blocked imports from India.”
With lakhs of Chinese tourists overflowing into Nepal, China towns are bound to appear in Nepal’s major cities.
A similar could phenomenon could be witnessed in Bhutan though on a much smaller scale as no border post exist between Tibet and Bhutan.
• Tourism needs energy.Mass tourism demands large amounts of energy and generates large quantities of solid waste. Where to get this energy from?
Probably by damming the rivers and further damaging the environment.
The rapid infrastructure development will however facilitate the energy production and transportation.
Large dams have serious implications for India, with India’s Indus, Brahmaputra, Ganga and other rivers having their sources on the plateau. India cannot be indifferent to what happens to the Tibetan rivers.
The problem of disposal of solid waste is also an unsolved issue. It is further compounded by the cold climate of the plateau.
• Development of restive areas in 'Tibetan-inhabited' areas of Gansu, Sichuan, Yunnan and QinghaiThough not directly connected to the Indian border, the development of a network of ‘support’ infrastructure in the Tibetan-inhabited areas can be of great help to China in case of conflict.
Apart from the string of airports mentioned above, the construction of a 1,629-kilometer Sichuan-Tibet railway, which will start in 2016, could be game changer.
The railway will be connecting Lhasa to Chengdu. The railway line will run for some 1,000 km on the Tibetan plateau and come close to the Indian border in its central sector.
Like the Qinghai-Tibet railway, it will bring tens of millions of Chinese tourists on the plateau.
• The establishment of the Theater CommandBeijing has recently created five Theater Commands or Combat Zones. Interestingly, the plateau now comes under one Theater Command only and not two Military Area Commands (Chendgu and Lanzhou) as in the past.
On commentary on China Military Online explained: “The deployment and command system of the five Theater Commands is designed to target head-on strategic threats. The new Theater Commands will attack proactively once a war broke out instead of passively waiting for defending the enemy at home. After the new military services system is established, the reshuffled Theater Commands system can … build the joint operational commanding institutions that are more suitable for modern warfare.”
Among other things, the new ‘reforms’ and the creation of the Western Theater Command will greatly facilitate the infrastructure development on the plateau.
This will be done in parallel with the tourism boom which will provide the necessary backbone not only in terms of roads and airports, but also hydropower plants, electricity grids, pipelines, optical fiber cables, radars, weather stations, etc.
• EnvironmentBecause tourism is the main source of revenue for the local populations on the Tibetan plateau, very few dare to question this ‘hot topic’, unless, like in the case of Uttarakhand in June 2013, a natural disaster put the development of mass tourism in a fragile mountain ecosystem, into serious question.
In the Tibetan plateau, the Communist leadership only sees the huge revenues pouring into the coffers of the local governments.
Who is interested to look at the consequences of bringing 100 million visitors on the Roof of the World?
For environmentalists, mass tourism is however the best (and the quickest) way to destroy the environment of an area as it demands large amounts of energy and generates a big quantity of solid waste. At the same time, it can’t be denied that it brings revenues to the local economy and communities.
It has also implications for India as, if climatic changes occur on the plateau, the Indian monsoon system will be affected and the populations of the Himalayan belt will be the first to suffer.
The Disneyfication of Land of Snows will not come as a free meal for the plateau and the neighbouring states.
But who is interested by this?