3 new Tibet airports near border pose threat

Columnist  | Claude Arpi

Opinion, Oped

India should not fall back into a ‘Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai’ mood, even if a ‘reset’ of bilateral relations is necessary.

India should not fall back into a “Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai” mood, even if a “reset” of bilateral relations is necessary. (Photo: PTI/File)

On June 9, the Civil Aviation Administration of China and the Tibetan Autonomous Region’s (TAR) government announced that Tibet will soon have three new airports. A communiqué said: “Construction of three airports, all above the altitude of 3,900 metres, should begin in 2019.”

Xinhua, the Chinese official news agency, gave the rationale: “Tourist travel will be more convenient and economic development in Tibet’s agricultural and pastoral areas will also be assisted.” The announcement came during a conference on Civil Aviation System Supporting Tibet Airport Construction Development held in Lhasa a day earlier.

The Chinese language press gave more information about the location of the three airports — one will be located in Lhuntse in Lhoka (called Shannan by the Chinese) area, north of the Upper Subansiri and Tawang districts of Arunachal Pradesh; the second will be between Tingri and Lhatse counties of Shigatse City, north of Zangmu, the border post with Nepal; and the last in Purang near the trijunction Nepal-Tibet-India, north of Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand (on the yatris’ route to Mount Kailash). While Tingri airport is near the Nepali border, the other two (Lhuntse and Purang) are at a short distance from the Indian border.

Xinhua said that Capital Airport Holding Company will be the contractor of the Lhoka, while the Shanghai Airport Authority will be responsible for the airport in Shigatse. The West Airport Group will take care of Purang. It reported: “The three companies are scheduled to transfer the airports to local operators after one or two years’ operation.” The airports should be completed in 2021, by which time there will be eight airports in the TAR region (plus three close to the Indian border in Xinjiang — Kashgar, Hotan and Yarkand).

“At present, the preparatory work for the three airports is underway. The preferred sites have been determined, and the construction of temporary weather stations at each site is completed,” added the news agency.

The three airports will be high-altitude airports; they will be operated by companies, including Air China, China Eastern Airlines or Sichuan Airlines, which are already involved in Tibet.

Let us not forget an important element; by law, these new airports will be for “dual use” — meaning they will have to be built to suit both the civilian and military standards. The People’s Liberation Army may use them when required.

The conference was a high-level affair. Apart from TAR’s party secretary Wu Yingjie, China’s civil aviation administration’s secretary Feng Zhenglin, TAR governor (who is also the director of the TAR Border Defence Committee) Che Dalha, deputy secretaries Ding Yexian and Zhuang Yan and the commander of the Tibet Military District Lt. Gen. Xu Yong attended it. Three other PLA officers were also on the dais. The level of the participants shows the importance of these three new airports for Beijing, particularly after the post-Doklam “reset” of bilateral relations with India.

One has to understand Chinese President Xi Jinping’s plans for Tibet. The “core” leader had declared: “Govern the nation by governing the borders; govern the borders by first stabilising Tibet; ensure social harmony and stability in Tibet and strengthen the development of border regions.”

For a few months, the authorities in Tibet have started implementing the boss’ theory while the party’s propagandawing  is doing its best to entice the local Tibetan population to side with it. This  serious development is unfortunately largely being ignored in India.

A new formula is mentioned in every speech of the local satraps — the inhabitants of China’s borders (with India) should be “the protectors of the sacred homeland and the builders of happy homes”.

It has taken a concrete shape with the mushrooming of new “model” villages and towns on the Tibetan side of the Indian border, mainly north of Arunachal Pradesh, officially linked with “poverty alleviation” and the “defence of the borders”. The development of China’s borders with India is indeed going on in full swing; the construction of three new airports has to be seen in this context.

Several senior Communist leaders have visited the new villages, either north of Kibithu in the Lohit valley; in Metok, north of Upper Siang district; in Yume (also written Yumai), north of Takshing in Upper Subansari or in Lepo, Marmang and Tsona, north of Khenzimane and Tawang. The Lhuntse airport will serve the Tsona and Yume areas.

Mr Wu recently gave an interview to the People’s Daily on the happenings in the border areas; he spoke of the significance of implementing the new strategy of “rejuvenating villages under the banner of the protectors of sacred homeland and the builders of happy homes”.

The new scheme started soon after the conclusion of the 19th party congress, when Mr Xi sent a reply to two young Tibetan herders who had written to him introducing their village, Yume. According to Xinhua, Mr Xi “encouraged a herding family in Lhuntse County to set down roots in the border area, safeguard Chinese territory and develop their hometown”. He acknowledged “the family’s efforts to safeguard China’s territory, and thanked them for the loyalty and contributions they have made in the border area. Without the peace in the territory, there will be no peaceful lives for the millions of families,” he wrote.

The two Tibetan girls, Choekar and Yangzom, had told the CCP secretary-general about their “experiences in safeguarding the border area and the development of their township over the years”.

The girls’ village, Yume, is located in Lhuntse county, not far from the remote Indian village of Takshing, which incidentally got its first motorable road earlier this month. Mr Xi further hoped that the girls’ family could “motivate more herders to set down roots in the border area like kalsang flowers”, blooming in hard conditions.

China is ready to invest 110 million yuan in the Yume Well-Off Rural Construction Project. To start with, 56 sets of light-steel prefabricated residential houses are being built, linked by two new municipal roads, a central park and six squares. Electricity and water have already reached the border village.

The rationale of the these post-Doklam measures is “to consolidate the border and to promote the deep integration of the military and the people”. Tourism and “cultural” industries remain the pillars of the scheme; it is supposed to help the population to get rid of poverty through participation in tourism while promoting “ethnic exchanges” — with Han tourists. Yume is the model for the entire scheme.

Another pet project of Mr Xi is the Military-Civilian Integration (or “Fusion”); this too applies to the border. Consider Zhayul County located north of Anjaw district of Arunachal Pradesh in the Lohit valley.

According to China Tibet News, the villages of the county have started implementing the “double-support model city”, which translates into full military and civilian integration.

India should not fall back into a “Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai” mood, even if a “reset” of bilateral relations is necessary. New Delhi should realise that Beijing is working hard to prepare itself for a “new Doklam” — if such an eventuality arises anywhere along the 4,000-km-long border.

It is definitely not the time for complacency.