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China’s Infrastructure Development in the Western Regions: Strategic Implications

 

Paper No. 210                              15.03.2001

by Dr. Subhash Kapila

China has marked the turn of the millennium with a significant decision to embark on the development of a strategic infrastructure in the Western regions, particularly Xinjiang and Tibet. The Chinese Government’s definition of its western region incorporates the provinces of Sichuan, Gansu, Guizhou, Yunnan, Qinghai, Chongqing municipality and the two largest and most remote regions of Xinjiang and Tibet. (1)

Xinjiang, Tibet and Yunnan bring China to share long land borders with a large number of countries. Xinjiang shares borders with Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kirghistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India and POK. Tibet shares borders with India, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar. Yunnan shares borders with Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. Thus with one sweep these Chinese frontier regions link China in one continuous chain with Eurasia, central Asian Republics, South Asia and South East Asia.

China is attempting to give an economic colour to its newly announced ambitious plans for infra structure development in these regions in roads, railways and oil pipe lines. It is also pressurizing US and western firms with sizeable economic holdings in China to invest in its so-called economic opening of the west.(2)

China’s economic modernisation has been underway for more than a decade now with double digit rates of economic growth. Hence financial resources for economic development of the underdeveloped regions of Xinjiang and Tibet were available earlier too. The fact that it was not undertaken earlier and being done now indicates that the contextual security environment surrounding the frontier regions is prompting the development of roads, railways and oil-pipe lines for strategic reasons.

China’s western frontiers: Changing security Environment

 

Xinjiang and Tibet are strategically sensitive regions of China. Though sparsely populated these regions have dominant non Han minorities with a record of an armed struggle against Chinese control of these regionsIn the last decade the security environment surrounding these regions has undergone significant changes namely:

* Disintegration of USSR resulting in the emergence of Islamic Central Asian Republics (CARs) bordering Xinjiang.

* The CAR regions are in the throes of resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism.

* Islamic fundamentalism is spilling over into Xinjiang from Pakistan and Afghanistan.

* The Taliban’s wish is to establish an Islamic caliphate in the CAR regions and Xinjiang.

* India’s nuclear weaponisation and missile building for a credible deterrence against Chinese.

* China’s strategic partner in South Asia- Pakistan having the potential to slide into Talibanisation.

* Tibet continues to be an open question despite Chinese repression.

Yunnan is not backward like Xinjiang and Tibet. Here too, the security environment has undergone a change in the last decade namely:

* Myanmar is sliding out of the Chinese embrace and forging cooperative links with ASEAN and India.

* Vietnam which historically had an adversarial relationship with China is now an active member of ASEAN.

Overall, the post cold war era has unleashed strategic uncertainties for China on its western frontiers especially.

Strategic Infrastructure development in China’s western regions

 

China has embarked on the following major infrastructure development programme in its western regions. (3)

* Beijing-Lhasa road is being rebuilt. While full details are not available, it can be assessed that any rebuilding would focus in increasing both its load and capacity in widening and making it fit for heavy vehicles.

* New Highways totalling over 1500 km will be built in Tibet and Xinjiang.

* Oil pipe line from Xinjiang to Shanghai is planned. This is supposed to tap the large oil reserves of the Tarim Basin.

* Development of oil reserves in Tarim and Qaidam basin.

* China also has plans to link Yunnan by a rail link all the way to Singapore by interfacing of existing rail links.

* A second all weather road to Nepal is being constructed connecting Kyirong pass through Rasuwa to the road head at Syaburbensi in Nepal.

The most significant and strategic project planned by China is the construction of a railway line from Golmud to Lhasa. Details of this line are:

* Length of the railway line from Golmud to Lhasa is 1125 km.

* Length of Lhasa Beijing rail route: 3900km.

* Construction period: 7 years.

China would like to maintain that the opening up of the western regions is based on the rationale of economic development and cultural integration of these areas with China. The sad fact is that these mega infrastructure projects do not cater for removing the backwardness of these regions in terms of agricultural inputs, education and health or even industrialisation. Even the economic component of these projects is aimed at draining away the oil and other mineral riches of these regions for use by mainland China.

Regional Security Implications

 

China’s development of strategic infra structure in Xinjiang improves her strategic capabilities in her western most region. Operating on interior lines of communication, China can improve her force-projection capabilities in this region. Linked up and interfaced with existing links like the Karakoram Highway, China gets strategic access to the Arabian sea and the Gulf region. The Karakoram highway links Islamabad with Kashgar which is linked by rail to Urumqi and China’s northern railway network.

Improved strategic infrastructure would permit greater flexibility and deployment of China’s missile armoury with consequent effects on surrounding regions of CAR, West Asia and Russia.

Implications for India’s Security

 

Planners of Indian security will have to take note of the improvement of the Lhasa-Beijing Highway and the construction of the Golmud-Lhasa railway which would affect India’s strategic environment. These strategic links now in the offing would impart the following military capabilities on China vis-a-vis India:

* China’s military deployment in Tibet and on the Indo Tibetan border could be doubled at the least.

* Above military deployments could be effectively sustained logistically in Tibet with the capacity so created.

* China’s air force deployments can be increased due to the new rail link and offshoots from the proposed oil pipe line.

* China’s missile deployments in Tibet could be multiplied.

War waging capabilities of any nation get multiplied if oil supplies are adequately available in the vicinity. Tapping the Qaidam basin would provide such a capability to China in the western region itself. Further, the proposed oil pipe line from Xinjiang to Shanghai would impart oil security to China’s military might in the Asia Pacific context also. China’s military oil supplies would be moving securely through Chinese territory all along to the Pacific coast without running the gauntlet of traversing the strategic choke points like Hormuz or Malacca vulnerable to US or Western strikes.

Conclusion

 

Economic opening up and advancement of backward regions is a laudable objective. However, in case of China, where the strategic rationale of its military modernisation and upgradation of force projection capabilities are not transparent, creation of mega infra structures which have strategic implications need careful watching. China’s west ward projects are not only of concern for India’s security but would also prove worrisome to the two global powers USA and Russia in terms of their perceived strategic interests in CARs and West Asia.

The newly emerging strategic mega-infra structure in terms of roads, railways and oil pipelines in Xinjiang and Tibet are like tentacles which would enable China not only to effectively control these two restive regions with separatist movements but also enable multiplication of China’s military capabilities on her western frontiers.

Notes:

1. See "Go west Young Han" in the Economist (London) of December 23, 2000. P. 29

2. For full details of this aspect see "West ward Ho," FEER, Jan 11, 2001 P. 26.

It lists various companies to invest in the western regions under Chinese Government pressure.

3. The Economist, December 23, 2000. P. 29.

4. See "By train to Lhasa," The Economist, February 17, 2001. P. 32.

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