Wednesday, 27 June 2012

One railroad serves all (Purposes): Geopolitical analysis of the Qinghai-Tibet Railroad

by Ms. S. Swathi Meenakshi*

He who holds Tibet dominates the Himalayan piedmont; he who dominates the Himalayan piedmont threatens the Indian subcontinent and he who threatens the Indian subcontinent may well have all of South Asia within his reach, and with it all of Asia.
~ George Ginsburgs and Michael Mathos[i]

Relations between India and China have traditionally been tenuous. Earlier, the mountainous terrain of the Himalayan ranges, Tibet, Bhutan and Nepal acted as buffer areas to ease tension between the two Asian giants. But, recent infrastructure developments along the border raise questions of concern. China’s build up holds important security implications for India and adds heat to age old territorial claims. Given this background, of particular significance is the construction of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway line. This railroad symbolizes China’s sovereignty over Tibet while establishing its technological prowess in building the highest railroad in the world[ii]. The railroad will gain ever more strategic significance as it connects hitherto inaccessible parts of the Tibetan plateau with the ‘Chinese motherland’. This paper tries to examine the geopolitical[iii] implications of such developments.

Engineering Marvel

The Qinghai-Tibet railroad runs a total length of 1,956 kms[iv] and involved the construction of 286 new bridges and 30 kilometres of tunnels[v]. At 5,072 metres above sea level, the Tanggula railway station in the Kunlun mountain range is the highest operated station monitored by satellite. Dubbed as a ‘great miracle of the world’s railroad history’[vi], this railroad has seemingly solved the three problems of frozen tundra, high altitude and plateau environmental protection[vii] through various technology interventions. For instance, about 632 kms of the line runs through permafrost of which 100 kms have been declared as highly unstable[viii]. To prevent melting and freezing due to day time temperature changes and seasonal variations, for every four yards two thermosiphons (ammonia filled cooling pipes that dissipate heat) have been inserted at a depth of 300 feet.

The vertical sectional diagram of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway (Golmud-Lhasa section) Source:

Early Connections

The plans for the first roads in the Tibetan plateau were laid in China’s First Five Year Plan (1953-1957) that allocated $4.23 billion on ‘transportation and communications’[ix]. The highway construction that began then has continued till date with five major highways being built[x]. Each of these highways was driven by “a political passion for road building”[xi] and have served in strategic and military capacities as well. According to Jan S. Prybyla[xii], the Sichuan-Tibet and the Qinghai-Tibet highways were constructed with the specific purpose of facilitating ease of invasion of Tibet. It is also speculated that the Xinjiang extension of the Sichuan-Tibet highway may have been one of the causes of Sino-Indian conflict[xiii].

Name of Highway
Starts at
Ends at
Length (in kms)
Year of completion
Sichuan-Tibet Highway (highest highway in the world)
Lhasa (runs through 14 mountain ranges and 12 rivers)
Qinghai-Tibet Highway
Lhasa (runs through Amdo, Gharmo and Nagchuka )
Xinjiang-Tibet Highway[xiv] (extension to Sichuan-Tibet highway)
Yarkand (runs through Shigatse, Sakya,
Lhatse and Rutok)
Yunnan-Tibet Highway
Hsiakuan (Xiaguan)
Mangkam in Tibet and then merges with Sichuan-Tibet highway

China-Nepal Highway (Golden passageway)
Passes through Lhatse, Tingri and Nyalam before reaching
the Friendship Bridge in Dram continuing upto Kathmandu
Table 1[xv]: Major highways connecting the Tibetan Plateau and China

Table 1 above shows how well planned the road building activities were so as to connect major Tibetan cities in the East and West with China and the border areas up to Nepal.

‘Go West’

In its 12th Five Year Plan (2011-2015), China began its ambitious Great Western Development Strategy to “redirect large amounts of central government spending, foreign direct investment, and international economic development funding to the western regions”[xvi]. The call for a railroad was made by Dr. Sun Yatsen in his ‘blueprint for Tibet’[xvii]. These plans saw a revival in late 1950s with the completion of the first line linking Tibet and China – between Lanzhou and Siling. In July 2006, when the Qinghai-Tibet railroad was completed a year ahead of schedule, it had shot its initial budget by 50% thus totaling $4.2 billion[xviii]. However, several years before the commencement of construction, former President Jiang Zemin opined that construction of the railway line “is a political decision, we will make this project succeed at all costs, even if there is a commercial loss”[xix]. This statement is indicative of the Chinese interest in the railroad.

One railroad, Multiple Purposes    

The Qinghai Tibet railway has carried 49 million passengers since opening in 2006[xx]. In present day Tibet, there are six million Tibetans and ten million Han Chinese[xxi]. The construction of the railroad signified demographic changes similar to the case of Mongolia, Manchuria and East Turkestan before Tibet. Tourism industry has seen a 30% increase since the construction of the railroad with 93% of the tourists being Chinese[xxii]. Mines and industries have mushroomed in the area[xxiii]. While the World War II period saw Chinese nationalists asserting superiority through suzerainty over border regions, present day Chinese nationalism has added a newer colour. Resource nationalism and ‘arms for oil’ policy has seen the proliferation of weapons and construction of military bases to secure energy resources. According to a 2005 report by Booz-Allen-Hamilton, China’s emerging maritime strategy at the time was called ‘string of pearls’[xxiv] where each pearl is a nexus of Chinese geopolitical or military presence. China has now set its eyes on strengthening its People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). China has now set its eyes on strengthening its Air Force as seen from the military exercises it has conducted since the construction of the railroad. Additionally, the rivers that originate from here serve as a source of water for the growing Chinese population and for the drier Chinese regions. In fact, a dam has been proposed across the Great Bend of the Brahmaputra river.[xxv]     

A bridge on permafrost Horizon. The Gormo-Lhasa Railway line runs through some of the most sensitive permafrost region of the Tibetan Plateau. Image courtesy: Fanghong/Wikipedia

Strategic Advantage

According to the Global Militarisation Index produced by the Bonn International Center for Conversion, China recorded a whopping 216% increase in military budget between 2000 and 2009 as against 67% by India[xxvi]. The construction of infrastructure forms a major part of this budget. The strategic and military potential of the Qinghai Tibet railroad was first established in March, 2008 when the PLA moved its troops within 48 hours to quell the protests in Lhasa. The T-90/89 armored personnel carriers and T-92 wheeled infantry fighting vehicles carried officers in “leopard” camouflage uniforms specifically used in mountain warfare operations as the 149th Division of the No. 13 Group Army under the Chengdu Military Region was dispatched to Lhasa[xxvii]. Besides, the PLA is involved actively in the design and planning of the high-speed railroads[xxviii]. For example, Chengdu Railway Bureau has 14 military officers holding critical posts in key departments at all major stations, are assigned tasks starting from design and planning to implementation. The Military Transportation Department of the PLA General Logistics Department (GLD) has equipped over 1000 railway stations with military transportation facilities, which according to Christina Lin establishes a complete railway support network that enhances the PLA’s strategic projection capability[xxix].

Several military exercises have been undertaken by the PLA since the construction of the line. These reached a pinnacle in 2010 when China formulated “Mission Action 2010” aimed at conducting joint military exercises between the seven military regions. A summary of these activities is given below[xxx]. The PLA transported “important combat readiness material” via the Qinghai-Tibet railroad later identified as ballistic missiles in order to test them under the rarefied atmospheric conditions of the Tibetan Plateau. In October, 2010, PLA conducted a live military training exercise in order to acclimatize its troops to the problems of high altitude – low oxygen content, altitude sickness and other related health problems. These exercises were a follow-up to the 2009 exercise code named ‘Stride’ which saw similar inter-regional participation. Since the construction of the railroad, China has often tested the capacity and readiness of the line whose assessed capacity is eight trains per day (one way) and 3200 tonnes per train[xxxi]. Recently, on March 20, 2012, PLA Daily reported an information-based drill conducted by the air force of Chengdu Military Area Command (MAC). According to the report, the drill focused on “striking simulated targets with diverse properties in light of actual combat”. Furthermore, such exercises in recent years “ascertain the fully-functional usage rule and strike effectiveness of weaponry and equipment in a high-altitude and complex environment and effectively enhancing the all-weather and around-the-clock combat capability of its troop units in all territories”[xxxii]. In each of these exercises, the troops and logistical support has often been provided through the railroad. Unconfirmed reports also suggest plans for construction of a second line devoted to freight transport. 

Nuclear Weapons build-up

The first nuclear weapon was brought into the Tibetan Plateau in 1971 and installed in Tsaidam basin in Amdo[xxxiii]. As early as 1995, Xinhua reported the possibility of a nuclear pollution due to dumping of radioactive pollutants near Lake Kooknoor, the largest salt water lake in Tibet. A nuclear facility, popularly known as the “Ninth Academy” was established to carry out nuclear weapons building and research[xxxiv]. (The facility is now decommissioned and has been converted into a museum). A 2005 book by renowned defence expert Saran Singh reveals, “A nuclear missile (DF-4 ICBM) launch site is also located at Terlingkha (217 km southeast of Tsaidam)” and the construction of 14 airbases. Going by this trend, it seems only logical to extrapolate the proliferation of such arms and construction of further facilities given the development of roads and railway lines in recent years.

In 2008, according to Hans Kristensen, the director of the nuclear information project of the Federation of American  Scientists: “Analysis of new commercial satellite photos has identified an extensive deployment area with nearly 60 launch pads for medium-range nuclear ballistic missiles in Central China”. In a presentation by Vincent Matten of the International Campaign for Tibet on February 29th, 2012, there are 4 nuclear missile launch sites are located in the Qinghai Province today[xxxv]. There are also issues of radioactive poisoning of at least 50 Tibetans in the north-western region of Gansu province. This region is reported to have the largest deposits of uranium in the world (according to Communist Party Official, Yin Fatang) and indiscriminate mining has already commenced[xxxvi].

Communication infrastructure

Chinese build-up along the border includes roads and railway networks, support infrastructure such as communication, securing oil, gas and other energy resources and dams, power projects and grids[xxxvii]. This section focuses on the communication infrastructure which is viewed as a sort of surveillance network rather than a means of connecting. With a view to enhance the ease of communication along the railroad, heavy investments have been made in collaboration with Nortel Networks of Canada. Railway communication systems technology, as provided by Nortel are part of China’s Golden Shield Project, an all-seeing network that links national, regional and local security agencies, thereby improving the state’s efficiency in monitoring and controlling the flow of information and people[xxxviii].There is wide speculation that the communication towers that are springing up every 6.7 kms along the railroad will form vital nodes of a tactical communication network (using C4I technologies - command, control, communication, computers and intelligence) for the PLA[xxxix].        

Future plans and extensions

Extension of the railway line to Shigatse is due to be completed in 2015[xl]. Several other extensions have also been planned in the aftermath of the April 2010 Kyrgyzstan crisis that led to the collapse of the local government. A “Grand Peripheral Strategy” was charted by Chen Xiangyang, an associate researcher at the Chinese Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), to safeguard China’s neighboring areas that resonated among the senior Chinese leaders[xli]. In addition to the railway lines in Tibet, China is building railroads to Nepal and is planning high-speed rails to Laos, Singapore, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar[xlii]. In addition, on November 15, 2010, Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan have agreed to cooperate with China in building a China-Iran railroad starting from Xinjiang. A possible long term ambition would be to connect to Iraq (where China has heavy oil and gas investments), Syria, and Turkey and even up to Europe.        

Recommendations and Conclusions

Recent developments across the Chinese border have important ramifications for India. The issue of Arunachal Pradesh is a constantly simmering one where India has traditionally adopted a “war of attrition[xliii]” approach. With the build-up of roads, railway networks, nuclear facilities, rapid action forces, this age old approach is hardly going to hold. The Indian government seems to be waking up to this reality and responding with a sense of late urgency. The Home Ministry has sanctioned “Rs.1,934 crore on 4th June 2012 for strategic road projects of about 804 kms in order to support the operational movement of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) along the India-China border, both in the eastern and the western sector. This includes the territory from the Karakoram Pass in Ladakh to Jachep La in Arunachal Pradesh covering about 3,488 kms of border. The task of building these roads have been given to the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), the Central Public Works Department (CPWD), and the National Projects Construction Corporation”[xliv].

In light of the current dynamics across the border, a neutral Tibetan plateau becomes essential in restoring balance in Asia. In the words of Sadar Patel, “(Throughout history) the Himalayas have been regarded as an impenetrable barrier for any threat from the North. We had a friendly Tibet which gave us no trouble….Chinese ambitions in this respect not only cover the Himalayan slopes on our side, but also include the important part of Assam… Chinese irredentism and communist imperialism are different from the expansionism or imperialism of the western powers, which makes it 10 times more dangerous. In the guise of ideological expansion lie concealed racial, national and historical claims”. While securing Indian borders by ramping up infrastructure is essential, a long term solution will only arise when the issue of Tibet is swiftly advanced in the international arena with the intention of resolving it. 

[i] George Ginsburgs and Michael Mathos, Communist China and Tibet: the First Dozen Years, Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1964, p. 210
[ii] – ‘Facts about Qinghai-Tibet railway’, Chinese government’s official web portal -
[iii] Geopolitical analysis here ascribes to Geoffrey Parker’s definition which is to analyze the background of the international situation from a spatial or geographical perspective
[iv] ‘Journey to the roof of the world’, China Daily, Jan. 22, 2007. Available at:
[v] “Tibet Railway to Fast-track Economic Goals”, World Tibet Network News, 23 July 2001,
[vi] In an epic keynote speech made by the Chinese President Hu Jintao on July 1, 2006, the railroad was dubbed a miracle asserting China’s stance   as a technological superpower. The President addressed an audience of 2,600 people in front of the Gormo railway station
[vii] ‘Qinghai-Tibet rail rumbles across roof of the world’, China Daily, Jul. 1, 2007. Available at:
[viii] “China’s train, Tibet’s tragedy’, p. 52. EDD Publication
[ix] Feng-hwa Mah, “The First Five Year Plan and Its International Aspects”, in C. F. Remer (ed.), Three Essays on International Economics of Communist China, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1959, p. 49
[x] Sino-Tibetan Relations 1990-2000: Internationalization of the Tibetan Issue, Dolkar, Tsetan, February, 29, 2008, p. 232
[xi] Ibid, p.234
[xii] Jan S. Prybyla, “Transportation in Communist China”, Land Economics, vol. 42, no. 3, August 1966, p. 273
[xiii] Ibid, p. 274
[xv] All figures provided, otherwise mentioned are drawn from “Sino-Tibetan Relations 1990-2000: Internationalization of the Tibetan Issue”, Dolkar, Tsetan, February, 29, 2008
[xvi] Wikileaks Documents Release, “Tibet: Problems, Prospects and US Policy”. Available at:
[xvii] Dr. Sun Yatsen’s vision for development of Tibet is available at:
[xviii] “The economics of the Gormo-Lhasa railroad”, China’s Train, Tibet’s Tragedy, EDD Publication, 2009, p. 66
[xix] Jiang Zemin, New York Times, August 10, 2001. Available at:
[xxiv] The phrase “string of pearls” was first used to describe China’s emerging maritime strategy in a report titled “Energy Futures in Asia” by defense contractor, Booz-Allen-Hamilton, which was commissioned in 2005 by the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of Net Assessment. Christopher J. Pehrson, String of Pearls
[xxviii] Xinhua News Agency, December 7, 2010
[xxxiii] “Demilitarisation of the Tibetan Plateau: An Environmental Necessity”, EDD Publication, p. 13
[xxxv] French expert on Tibet, Anne Marie Blondeau
[xxxvii] “Chinese build-up in Tibet and implications for India”, Presentation by Brig (Retd) Rahul K Bhonsle
[xxxix] This communication network takes advantage of existing technology such as GIS, GPS and GSM-R to come up with a new system. The Geographic Information System (GIS) is a suite of software and hardware tools designed to combine relational databases with satellite maps of the earth’s surface. It helps in translating mapped information along with relevant attributes in a form that is easy to retrieve and manipulate. For rail transportation applications, spatial data which graphically represents the geometry of the rail network is visually cross-referenced with related attributes, for example, the location of bridges, stations and rolling stock, or socio-economic data to support decision making. The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a satellite navigation system operated by the United States Department of Defence. It consists of a constellation of 24 satellites orbiting the earth and six ground stations. The satellites transmit a signal that allows the user to determine with some accuracy the precise location of their GPS receiver. GPS receivers are accurate to within less than 15 metres. GSM-R (Global System for Mobile communication - Railway) allows wireless communication between trains and control centers. Like GSM, voice and data transfer is also possible. Also, voice calls, walkie-talkie type communication, call initiator alone speaks calls and high priority calls for emergencies are also possible. The G3 system integrates these three technologies (GIS + GPS + GSM-R) to create a state-of-the-art information planning system for the railway. Nortel’s GSM-R system provided Beijing Jiaotong University with all the services it required to successfully deploy the G3 system: remote train control, voice communications for all users, emergency call handling, data message exchange, communication recording, and integration capacity with other existing (or future) systems.
[xli] Ta Kung Pao [Hong Kong], September 24, 2009
[xliii] Attrition warfare is a technique employed by a side with greater resources to wear down the opposing side. The belligerent side wins over the other side by causing enormous loss of life and property. An example is that of World War I when the Allied Powers wore down the Central Powers to the point of capitulation.
[xliv] IDSA Commentary by Namrata Goswami, June 7, 2012
* Ms. S. Swathi Meenakshi is presently a volunteer at Environment & Development Desk (CTA) and also a participant of the 12th Gurukul Programme being held in Dharamshala (5 June-7 July 2012). She completed her Bachelors in Electrical & Electronics Engineering from College of Engineering, Guindy, Anna University and will be matriculating into the graduate program in Electrical and Computer Engineering at McGill University, Montreal, Canada in the coming fall.

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