While India 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.
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 Lhasa-Nyingchi rail line 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".
While the new line runs east from Lhasa, one running west to Xigaze (Shigatse), a town north of Sikkim, has been operational since 2014.
The 250-km-long Lhasa-Xigaze rail line is being extended further west into the Tibetan Plateau, and also to the south, towards Sikkim. At least one of the lines running west will lead to Gyirong, a town near Tibet’s border with Nepal, and the extension to the south will go to the town of Yadong in the Chumbi Valley, a narrow sliver of land between Sikkim and Bhutan, not far from Doklam, were India and China were locked in a military standoff for over two months in 2017.
When the construction of this network running in an east-west direction is complete, China will have a rail line running the entire length of the eastern sector of the disputed frontier with India, from Arunachal Pradesh to Sikkim, and potentially further west towards Nepal, allowing the PLA to move troops and equipment to the frontline much faster than before and also sustain them for relatively longer periods of time.
The Sichuan-Tibet line will link Tibet with China’s massive rail network — it is the second major railway link between the rail network on the Tibetan Plateau and the larger Chinese railways after the Qinghai–Tibet line.
The rail line will not only ease the movement of troops within China’s Western Theater Command but also enable the PLA to bring trainloads of troops and equipment from other theaters in a very short time, a scenario that can’t be ruled out after China’s massive mobilisation along the LAC in Ladakh in 2020.
Although the development of infrastructure on the Indian side of the border has picked up pace over the past few years, India still has much catching up to do. Arunachal Pradesh made it to the national railways map only in 2014. In 2019, the Narendra Modi government gave the go-ahead for three railway projects in the state, including the 378-km long Bhalukpong-Tawang line, the 248-km long North Lakhimpur-Silapathar line and the 227-km long Pasighat-Rupai line.
The second Chinese railway project that has become a concern for India is the 825 km long line connecting Hotan, a town in southwestern Xinjiang, just north of the Aksai Chin, with Ruoqiang town in southeastern Xinjiang.
Construction of the Hotan-Ruoqiang line began in 2018, a large part of the project has already been completed, and it could be put into service in June 2022.
The rail line will cut travel time between Hotan in Xinjiang and Xining, capital of Northwest China's Qinghai province, from three days to just one. Given its proximity to Ladakh, this rail line is likely to be used by China to induct troops and equipment in the event of a crisis along the LAC in the western sector.
Ruoqiang is already connected to the town of Golmud, which is linked to the wider Chinese railways network via Xining, allowing the PLA to bring troops and equipment to the LAC in Ladakh from other theater commands to Hotan.
Golmud is a major logistics hub for the PLA on the Tibetan Plateau — the first rail link to Lhasa, the Qinghai–Tibet line, also passes through the town.
From Xinjiang’s Hotan, the troops and equipment could be moved to Aksai Chin and other areas along the LAC, through the Xinjiang-Tibet highway.
The Hotan-Ruoqiang line will significantly ease logistics for the PLA amid increasing militarisation of the LAC as a result of the nine-month-long standoff in eastern Ladakh, which still continues at some of the flashpoints.
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