Chinese Airfields In And Around Tibet: A Geographical Overview
Analysis with images—mapping and geo-locating Chinese military infrastructure being built up along our borders.
There’s a lot happening in the Indian subcontinent presently. Much of it has to do with China, one way or another.
In Nepal, the Communist government of Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli splintered recently, forcing him to vacate his post; the root cause was a needless, overt edging towards Beijing by these Maoists.
The Chinese are constructing military barracks in the Chumbi Valley as if to formally counter the red line India drew during the Doklam standoff there in 2017 (this narrow valley runs north from our Chicken’s Neck at Siliguri, between Sikkim and Bhutan, onto the Tibetan plateau).
The Americans have abruptly vacated Afghanistan after a decades-long war against Islamist terror groups, which achieved no material political objectives. That space is being swiftly filled by the Pakistan-promoted Taliban, who now control the bulk of the country. Analysts fear that the Chinese might ride into the Hindu Kush on the coattails of Islamabad to make strategic gains.
India is exerting severe pressure on China to thwart their construction of an all-weather road and rail link through the Khunjerab Pass and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir to gain secure land access to the Arabian Sea.
As if in apprehension that their Khunjerab dreams might flounder, the Chinese are building a rail link over thousands of kilometres along the southern rim of the Tibetan plateau, linking the plains near Mount Kailas to Chengdu in Sichuan Province, China.
In an upheaval of centennial proportions, India and China are now no longer friends. An unexpected, unilateral Chinese military buildup in Ladakh and Aksai Chin in April/ May last year led to the fatal Galwan clash in June 2020. This means that entire divisions of both armies are now ominously camped face to face along an unresolved border.
The threat of actual conflict looms so disconcertingly for India, with both China and its client state, Pakistan, that few op-eds in mainstream media are able to conclude their arguments without reference to a ‘two-and-a-half-front war’ (the half being the Islamist insurgencies they anticipate furious escalation of, in Jammu and Kashmir, if war breaks out). Indeed, an Indian newspaper even ran a gloomy piece recently, predicting that the Chinese could attack and occupy vital parts of Arunachal Pradesh this coming winter.
True or false, right or wrong, the point is that our subcontinent is presently poised at the threshold of an unstable age. As a result, there is a great deal of public interest in India to learn more about what the Chinese are up to militarily along our borders.
Since the Tibetan plateau is the largest, highest, coldest, and most inhospitable part of our planet, outside the poles, with terrain so rugged that moving, housing and supplying troops is a back-breaking effort in itself, much of the focus is on airfields. In such an environment, logistics is as great, if not greater, a challenge as combat, with air supply being central to boots on the ground, air operations, and air defence units.
Unfortunately, there is little information in the public domain. This, in turn, limits reportage by mainstream media. Consequently, with neither the Chinese or Indian governments releasing details, this gaping data void is presently filled by private players, who provide some insights by diligently analyzing commercially available satellite imagery.
One such respected contributor is the anonymous Twitter handle, @detresfa, whose latest, in-depth collaborative effort for a website called thedrive.com tracks China’s air power expansion in and around Tibet. Apparently, a number of new airfields are under construction by the Chinese, along with expansions and hardened shelters at existing ones.
Some of this was first reported by Claude Arpi in June 2018, such as the plan to build three new runways at Tingri, Lhuntse and Purang. But the first visual proof in the public domain comes from meticulous analysis of satellite imagery by @detresfa and others for thedrive.com.
The problem, however, is that analysts use disparate data sets. So, an airfield or a missile air defence site marked on one map is often absent in another. A good example is Keriya airport in southern Xinjiang, between Hotan and Qeimo airbases. Known formally as Yutian Wanfang Airport, it is serviced by three Chinese airlines for civilian traffic. Getty Images has striking images on offer of its swanky new terminal but is obscured on Google Maps and finds only rare mention amongst analysts.
That is extremely confusing for the average reader, who, as it is, has only a tenuous appreciation of such arcane matters. Therefore, in this piece, Swarajya presents a compilation of all identified Chinese airfields stringing the Indian subcontinent.
Regionally, there are seventeen Chinese airfields ringing the Tibetan plateau. Of these, five are in the Tarim Pendi of Xinjiang province, north of the plateau. One, Golmud, is located in the Tsaidam Basin of Qinghai province, immediately to the northeast of the plateau; and one, Yushu, lies east-centrally on the plateau, in a valley beside the upper waters of the Yangtse Kiang.
That leaves ten airfields near our mountain chains. Located in an arc stretching along the Karakoram and Himalayan ranges, they are, from west to east: Taxkorgan, Ngari-Gunsa, Burang, Tingri, Shigatze, Lhasa-Gonggar, Damxung, Lhuntse, Nyingchi and Bangda.
1. Taxkorgan (Also spelt Takshkorgan)
This airfield, situated at 3,090 meters above sea level, is currently under construction. It lies on the Karakoram highway, north of the Khunjerab pass, and presents a more forward option for the Chinese, to their cluster of air bases in southern Xinjiang.
This airbase is situated at 4,270 meters above sea level. It is a fully operational one and is located in a high saddle between the Ladakh and Kailash ranges, through which runs a tributary of the Indus. It is one straight road from here, due northwest along the Karakoram fault, to Demchok, Fukche Heli Base, Rezang La and Pangong Lake. The Chinese have chosen their spot well.
3. Burang (Also spelt Purang)
This airfield is situated at about 3,900 metres and is presently under construction. It lies just across the Himalayas from Uttarakhand, and the Nepal-India-Tibet tri-junction, in a valley which wends its way slowly down to Rakas and Manasarovar lakes, at the foot of Mount Kailas.
While it is touted as a feeder strip for the pilgrim trail, it also offsets the small airstrip at Simikot in Nepal (red dot on the lower right of Map 6), which could be used as a heliport if need be.
This airfield, too, is presently under construction. Situated at an altitude of 4,300 metres, Tingri fills the gap between Burang to the west and Shigatze to the east. It lies across the Himalayas from Kathmandu.
This is a fully operational airbase situated at 3,800 metres in south-central Tibet. It was one of the first to get an air defence site. The airfield is located on the right bank of the Brahmaputra, and nearly due north of Thimphu, across the Himalayas.
This is primarily a civilian airport, situated at an altitude of 3,575 metres, which services Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. But it also has a dual military function, which may be invoked in times of need. Like Shigatze, it too lies on the right bank of the Brahmaputra.
This airfield, which is presently under construction, lies at an altitude of 4,300 metres to the north of Lhasa. Its importance is that it is the only landing pad of worth, along the vital Lhasa-Sinkiang railway line, which winds its way across the Tibetan plateau. The original airstrip was built decades before but lay incomplete; it has now been taken up for modernisation and completion on an active footing, following the Doklam crisis of 2017.
This airfield is presently under construction. It is situated at an altitude of 3,800 metres and is located very close to the Arunachal Pradesh border. As the map above shows, it lies across the mountains from our Tezpur airbase (marked on the bottom left of the map) and is probably the most remote of the lot in terms of access. Interestingly, there is a road that runs from Lhuntse to Namka Chu, near the Bhutan-India-Tibet tri-junction, where a lot of the action in 1962 took place.
Sitting at ‘just’ 2,950 metres, it is the lowest, by altitude, of the ten on our list. This third major airfield on the Brahmaputra is passed by roaring waters, which take a majestic bend around Mount Namche Barwa, to enter India through the Tsangpo Gorge. As the crow flies, Nyingchi airfield (not to be confused with a town of the same name) is just a dozen kilometres from our border and lies across the mountains from Tuting airfield in Arunachal Pradesh.
Bangda airfield is situated at an altitude of 4,340 metres. It lies in a high valley between two long mountain chains, which separate the Salween and Mekong rivers and is the easternmost on our list. It has a symbiotic relationship with Qamdo town, slightly to the north; together, both perform sentinel duty for roads running from the Tibetan plateau into mainland China.
To sum up, here is a physical map showing the locations of the airfields discussed in this piece:
All airfields, except Nyingchi and Taxkorgan, are situated at altitudes well above 10,000 feet. What military utility they offer is questionable since planes taking off from such altitudes can only carry a fraction of their full load. Yet, there they are, on our northern borders.
Perhaps this construction of new airfields, along with expansions of existing ones, is a kneejerk response by the Chinese to our own beefing up of border infrastructure in the past decade; or perhaps it is posturing; or perhaps they mean business and need more landing grounds to deliver men and supplies, since the road route across the plateau is too long, too torrid, and too exposed for words. Bottom line is that we don’t know.
Besides, there are hundreds of other Chinese airfields, to the north and east, which could also come into play in case of a conflict; not to mention static and mobile missile units, for both attack and air defence, which is the other dimension brewing.
So, this is but a first step in the exercise of mapping and geo-locating Chinese military infrastructure being built up along our borders, so that readers can become more familiar with what the Chinese are up to along our borders. This effort will be gradually expanded in due course, to include our western border as well. Until then, a Google Earth kmz file is provided here for interested readers to pursue the subject further online.
Data from thedrive.com and Google Earth
As you are no doubt aware, Swarajya is a media product that is directly dependent on support from its readers in the form of subscriptions. We do not have the muscle and backing of a large media conglomerate nor are we playing for the large advertisement sweep-stake.
Our business model is you and your subscription. And in challenging times like these, we need your support now more than ever.
We deliver over 10 - 15 high quality articles with expert insights and views. From 7AM in the morning to 10PM late night we operate to ensure you, the reader, get to see what is just right.
Becoming a Patron or a subscriber for as little as Rs 1200/year is the best way you can support our efforts.