While India has started developing border infrastructure seriously only a decade ago, China has already built an extensive road and rail network on the Tibetan Plateau, including areas along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), giving the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) the capability to deploy troops rapidly, much faster than the Indian Army.
Now, two new rail lines that China is currently working on, one of which will be operational as early as June 2021, will further improve the PLA’s capability to deploy rapidly along the frontier with India, near Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh, and smoothen its logistics across the Tibetan Plateau.
The first of these is the 435-kilometre rail line that runs close to Arunachal Pradesh, linking Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, with Nyingchi, a town opposite India’s Tuting sector, in the Upper Siang district of Arunachal.
Nyingchi is located 40 km away from border in Arunachal Pradesh, and the rail line itself runs much closer to the border than that at some points. The PLA’s 52nd and 53rd Mountain Infantry Brigades are based in the Nyingchi Prefecture. China has also built a 250-km-long highway linking Nyingchi with Lhasa, which, like the Lhasa-Nyingchi rail line, runs close to Arunachal.
Construction of the Lhasa-Nyingchi rail line, nearly 75 per cent of which is either over bridges or under tunnels, began in 2015, and track laying was completed over five years, in December 2020, at a cost of $4.8 billion. China will open the line for traffic in June this year, amid rising tensions with India along the LAC.
The Lhasa-Nyingchi rail line is part of the longer, 1,600-km long Sichuan-Tibet line that will link Lhasa with Chengdu, a city east of Arunachal Pradesh. The headquarter of China’s Western Theater Command, which is responsible for the frontier with India from Arunachal to Ladakh, is located in Chengdu.
The remaining 1,100-km long section of the line, a part (Chengdu-Ya’an section) of which is already complete, is expected to be ready by 2030.
The project has received consistent attention from the top echelons of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), including President Xi Jinping himself, who linked it to ‘border stability’ as recently as November 2020, during the standoff with India in Ladakh.
Although the dominant narrative in the Chinese state media about the the Lhasa-Nyingchi rail line is linked to economic development on the Tibetan Plateau, the CCP apparat has pointed out that it will act as a “fast track” for the “delivery of strategic materials” to Tibet “if a scenario of a crisis happens at the border”.
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