China is set to complete a strategically significant 253-km rail link from Lhasa to Shigatse, near its border with Nepal, by 2014 — a year ahead of schedule.

Railway authorities say the rail link, which is an extension of the Qinghai-Tibet railway, will be completed in two years’ time and will have an annual freight capacity of 8.3 million tonnes, as reported by state-run Xinhua news agency.

China began construction on the rail line — half of it on bridges and in tunnels through the mountains of Tibet — in 2010. The line will also run through the Grand Canyon of the Brahmaputra, or Yarlung Zangbo as it is known in Tibet.

Last month, officials said they were working to correct structural defects they had discovered on the Lhasa-Shigatse line, which could “endanger railroad safety”.

Construction defects, including cracks and leaks on tunnel arches and poorly arranged economic cables, were discovered in 12 railway lines across the country in routine inspections, according to a Ministry of Railways document reported on by Economic Observer.

Construction on the line began in 2010 with a budge of 13.3 billion Yuan ($ 2.1 billion). Officials of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) government were quoted as saying in January that the link would be completed in 2015, and would boost tourism and accelerate the transportation of natural resources.

The project is included under the current five year plan (2011-2015) for the TAR, which has also allocated funds for expanding the region’s road network with 5,000 km of roads being built in 2011.

While Chinese officials say the infrastructure investment is directed at boosting development, the plans have been seen by many strategic experts in India and by some officials as aimed at expanding China’s military mobilisation capabilities in the sparsely-populated remote border areas. The projects, they say, will widen infrastructure asymmetry across the border.

Commenting on the issue, Indian Defence Minister A.K. Antony told Parliament last month that the Indian government was monitoring all developments in the neighbourhood that could impact national security.

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