China has completed construction of a strategically significant highway through the world’s deepest canyon in Tibet along the Brahmaputra river, enabling greater access to remote areas along the disputed border with Arunachal Pradesh in India.
The highway, official media in China reported this week, took seven years to complete and passes through the Grand Canyon of the Yarlung Zangbo river, as the Brahmaputra is called in Tibet. This is the “second significant passageway” to Medog county that borders Arunachal, the official Xinhua news agency reported, directly connecting the Pad township in Nyingchi to Baibung in Medog county.
The highway will reduce the distance between Nyingchi city and Medog from 346 km to 180 km and will cut the travel time by eight hours. The project, undertaken by the China Huaneng Group, required an estimated investment of over 2 billion yuan (around $310 million), Xinhua reported.
The construction, which began in 2014, is part of a wider infrastructure push in border areas in Tibet. In November, China began work on a strategically important railway line — its second major rail link to Tibet after the Qinghai-Tibet railway that opened in 2006 — that will link Sichuan province with Nyingchi.
That project was considered important enough for President Xi Jinping to officially launch it, as he called it “a major step in safeguarding national unity and a significant move in promoting economic and social development of the western region”.
Zhu Weiqun, a senior Party official formerly in charge of Tibet policy, was quoted as saying by state media the railway will help “transport advanced equipment and technologies from the rest of China to Tibet and bring local products out”. “If a scenario of a crisis happens at the border, the railway can act as a ‘fast track’ for the delivery of strategic materials,” he said.
The first segment of the line within the Sichuan province, from Chengdu to Yaan, was completed in December 2018. Work on the 1,011-km section from Yaan to Nyingchi will be finished in 2030.
Civilian settlements in disputed territories
Another part of the border infrastructure push is the construction of new civilian settlements — along with the expansion of existing smaller hamlets — along border areas, some of which lie in disputed territories claimed by India and Bhutan, to strengthen China’s control over the land.
In 2017, the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) government launched a plan to build “moderately well-off villages” in border areas, under which 628 “first line and second line villages” — referring to those right on the border and others in remote areas slightly further within — would be developed in the prefectures of Ngari, Shigatse, Shannan and Nyingchi, along China’s borders with India, Bhutan and Nepal.
An investment of 30.1 billion yuan (about ₹30,000 crore) was announced for the project, covering 62,160 households and 2.4 lakh people, and includes plans to resettle residents to live in the new settlements.
Last year, satellite images emerged showing a new village called Pangda built 2-3 km into what Bhutan sees as its land. On January 18 this year, another village built newly 4-5 km into what India sees as its territory in Arunachal came to light via satellite images. Indian officials said this land has been under China’s effective control since 1959 and there were military barracks there earlier. The civilian settlements, along with the new infrastructure connectivity, are seen as aimed at bolstering China’s control over the areas.