A new railway linking western China’s Sichuan province with central Tibet’s Nyingtri prefecture will boost tourism and trade along a previously unconnected southern route, but will also strengthen Beijing’s control over a disputed region bordering India, state media and other sources say.
Work on the proposed 1,011 km (628-mile) rail line from Chengdu in Sichuan to Nyingtri (in Chinese, Linzhi), costing an estimated U.S. $28 billion and including 26 stations, is set to begin immediately, China Railway announced on Oct. 31, according to a Nov. 2 report by Construction magazine.
The project will be the second major railway to be built by China in Tibet after the northern line connecting Golmud in northwest China’s Qinghai province with Tibet’s regional capital Lhasa, the highest railway in the world, which was completed in 2006.
The new line connecting Sichuan’s capital Chengdu to Nyingtri in the Tibet Autonomous Region will shorten travel time along the route from 48 to 13 hours, Construction said, citing a report by state-run China News.
It will also “enhance person-to-person exchanges between different regions and ethnic groups [and] promote understanding and cultural integration,” Xiong Kunxin, an ethnic studies professor at the Tibet University in Lhasa said in a report by state-run Global Times and cited by Construction.
The railway will also play a strategic role, providing “great convenience for China’s delivery of strategic materials” in the event of a clash between India and China along a disputed border, Qian Feng—director of research at Tsinghua University’s National Strategy Institute—said, also quoted by Global Times.
In interviews with RFA’s Tibetan Service, regional experts said the rail line, when completed, will tighten Beijing’s grip on Tibet, a formerly independent Himalayan country invaded by China 70 years ago and governed by China’s ruling Communist Party ever since.
China’s planned Sichuan-to-Nyingtri railway has been designed to serve two purposes, said Amit Bansal, an India-based defense and international relations analyst and writer. Nyingtri lies just north of the Indian border.
“The first is to [support] military mobilization, so that in the case of any conflict and resistance by the locals, they can immediately mobilize their forces along this train route.”
“The second, and most important, objective that the Chinese government wants to achieve by using this rail line is to send their [ethnic] Han population to Tibet,” Bansal said.
“The CCP is already destroying Tibetan culture and religious institutions, and now they will be sending in large numbers of Han Chinese to settle down among the Tibetans so that Tibetan culture can be finished off in a systematic manner,” he said.
China’s long-term goal
Because of the Tibetan Plateau’s “enormous geopolitical and environmental importance to the whole of Asia,” China’s long-term goal is to gain total control over the region, and is therefore building new dams, roads, airports, rail lines, and other infrastructure inside Tibet, said Wangdhen Kyab, a senior researcher at UK-based Tibet Watch.
“However, all policies implemented inside Tibet in the name of development and urbanization are of no benefit at all to the Tibetans,” Kyab said.
“The railways lines are meant to facilitate public transportation, but if we explore the rural regions of Tibet, we can see that not even the roads are properly built,” he said.
“These railways built inside Tibet may have made travel slightly easier for their passengers, but at the heart of all this development it is only the Chinese government that has benefited from them,” agreed Kunga Tashi, Chinese Communication and Outreach Officer for the New York-based Tibet Fund.
“Tibetans and Tibet’s environment have suffered the most,” Tashi said.
“For example, some experts have said that these trains can be halted without notice and used for the deployment of armies in cases of emergency. So we have to carefully weigh the advantages and disadvantages of these railway lines,” he said.
Located at the end of the new railway being built, Tibet’s Nyingtri prefecture lies close to China’s border with the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, a region long claimed by China as “South Tibet.”
India and China have been embroiled in a row over Arunachal Pradesh for decades as part of a larger dispute over their shared 3,500 km (2,175 mile) border that prompted a brief 1962 Sino-Indian War.
A nine-day visit to the Indian state in April 2017 by Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama angered Beijing, and China’s foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying slammed India for extending the Dalai Lama an invitation to visit the region.
Reported and translated for RFA’s Tibetan Service by Tenzin Dickyi. Written in English by Richard Finney.