Repaving of Xinjiang-Tibet highway first time in 50 years

Chinese officials have said they are close to completing the repaving of the Xinjiang-Tibet national highway, which runs through the disputed Aksai Chin region, for the first time in 50 years.

Repaving of the Xinjiang section, which runs through the Aksai Chin region that India holds claims to, will be completed next month, local authorities in Yecheng county of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR) were quoted as saying by the state-run Xinhua news agency on Wednesday.

This marks the first repaving in the road’s 50-year history, according to Ma Zhixin, the deputy head of Yecheng’s road administration bureau.

Construction of the road began in 1951, and its completion in 1957 caught India by surprise, triggering tensions ahead of the 1962 conflict.

According to Xinhua, the repaving began in September 2010 and cost three billion yuan ($476 million).

The 2,143-km road runs from Yecheng county in Kashgar prefecture in Xinjiang south to Lhatse in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR).

The Aksai Chin region is administered by China under the Hotan prefecture in Xinjiang.

The Xinjiang section of the road is 654.8 km in length. It is regarded as the highest traversable road in the world.

The national road is of strategic significance to China, both as the only link to its military outposts on its remote far-western border and as the most feasible land connection between Xinjiang and Tibet.

The repaving is part of a plan to upgrade road and rail infrastructure across the less developed western regions. While officials say the objective is to primarily boost development and bridge the gap with the more prosperous east, the plans have also stirred interest in India as they will widen the asymmetry in infrastructure across the disputed western section of the border.

Last year, the government opened a new rail link between Xinjiang and Tibet that shortened the distance between the two regional capitals, Urumqi and Lhasa, by more than 1,000 km. The government opened more than 5,000 km of new highway in TAR in 2011, and will add 8,000 km of railway lines in Xinjiang in the next Five-Year Plan, according to official reports.

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