China is upgrading its infrastructure along its western frontier, especially in the Xinjiang and Tibet regions, perceiving internal and external security threats. The effort is simultaneously an exercise to project its military power in its western region.
New airports and heliports are being constructed or upgraded on a priority basis. Most of them will be military or dual-use facilities. The air facilities are being supplemented with expansion of rail and road infrastructure to facilitate the logistics and troop movement capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
The western build-up is significant because not only are the Xinjiang and Tibet regions far-flung from China’s industrial east coast, they also border 11 countries with most of whom China has running disputes. The regions are also marked by inoperable terrain of mountains and deserts and comprise nearly a third of China’s territory.
The biggest threat perception relates to China’s disputed border with India. The two sides are currently involved in a border standoff after China tried to build a border road in the Doklam plateau in 2017 and followed it up with questionable incursions into the Ladakh region in 2020. Media analysts admit: “This marked the first time in decades that border tensions between China and India resulted in fatalities, and the flashpoint remains a major source of tension between the two countries.”
Xinjiang is important to China because of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project and its intention to re-create the ancient Silk Road in order to find a new land route for Chinese products to enter Europe. Xinjiang occupies a central position within the BRI and serves as a key link between China and its western neighbors. China has also beefed up “security cooperation with bordering countries—including Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and most recently Kazakhstan—with the aim of enhancing their domestic security and fending off instability that could spill over into China”. Internally, China is concerned that either inimical foreign powers or local insurgents might foment trouble in Tibet and Xinjiang. The movement for independence by the Tibetan people and the protests of Xinjiang’s Uighur Muslims over alleged Chinese oppression are the reasons for worry. What is more, both regions are autonomous regions in China with substantial ethnic minority populations.
ChinaPower, a leading digital assessor of how China perceives economic and military power, says in a recent paper: “Together these perceived threats have compelled China to invest heavily in upgrading the two regions’ infrastructure. New and upgraded airports promise to bring an influx of new business activity and tourism to areas previously disconnected from China’s main commercial and political centers. New roads and rail aim to do the same and facilitate easier movement of people within the regions. At the same time, investments in military and dual-use air facilities afford the PLA a growing menu of options for projecting airpower within the region. New ground infrastructure is likewise rendering remote areas significantly more accessible for Chinese military and security forces, allowing them to project power more easily within Tibet and Xinjiang and potentially into neighboring countries.”
Referring to China’s heavy investment in enhancing its air power in the west, ChinaPower report says: “The airpower build-up taking place on China’s western frontier is sweeping in scale. Based on analysis of satellite imagery and other open-source material, China Power has identified 37 airports and heliports within Tibet and Xinjiang that have been newly constructed or upgraded since 2017—the year China and India squared off on the Doklam Plateau. At least 22 of these are identifiable as military or dual-use facilities or are expected to be once they are completed. The pace of this activity sped up significantly in 2020. That year alone, China began constructing seven new air facilities and initiated upgrades at seven others.”
In Tibet, upgrades have been initiated in all five existing airports in Tibet. There will be new terminals, hangars, aprons and runways. All the airports will have dual-use facilities. “China is supplementing these with four new airports in Tibet. Three of these—Lhuntse Airport, Ngari-Burang Airport, and Shigatse Tingri Airport—are positioned less than 60 km from the China-India border. The new facilities also fill large gaps along the Indian border where there were previously no airports. If PLA Air Force (PLAAF) units are based at these airports, China will gain several new nodes along the border from which to project airpower into India.”
In Xinjiang, the authorities have upgraded 15 airports in the last five years. Seven of them are military or dual-use facilities. According to the research paper, “one such airport is Hotan Airport, a major dual-use airport located approximately 240 km from the western portion of the Line of Actual Control (LAC)”. Significantly, it says, “less than 5 km southeast of the main airport area, a surface-to-air missile (SAM) complex is being upgraded, enhancing the air defenses at the airport and surrounding areas”. Three new airports are coming up in the western reaches of Xinjiang near the borders with Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan. Another new airport, at Tashkorgan, is coming up as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project.
There is serious investment involved in developing road and rail infrastructure in the two regions. According to official figures, “Tibet’s highway system grew 51 percent between 2015 and 2020—from 7,840 km to 11,820 km—faster than the growth rate of any other province, region, or municipality”. Xinjiang’s network of highways has expanded at a fast clip as well, “growing from 17,830 km in 2015 to 20,920 km in 2020”.
The paper says: “Many of the new roads and highways being built are connecting major regional hubs to remote areas on China’s borders. In western Xinjiang, for example, China is constructing at least eight roads stretching from the major G219 national highway toward the China-India LAC. The new roads add to a growing network enabling easier and quicker movement of people, goods, and military personnel and supplies close to border areas. Within the military realm, these roads may specifically play a role in moving PLA forces between cities like Hotan—home to a major PLAAF base—into remote parts of disputed areas, such as the Galwan Valley.”
China’s national economic blueprint for 2021-2025, the 14th Five Year Plan, lays out a goal of strengthening the construction of “strategic backbone corridors” out of Xinjiang and into Tibet. “Among other strategic backbone corridors, it specifically calls for opening up the G219 and G331 highways along the border [with India] and upgrading the G318 line of the Sichuan-Tibet Highway,” the paper says.
Efforts are also on to develop a more robust rail system in its western regions. ChinaPower says: “Xinjiang’s rail network has grown quickly in recent years, from 5,900 km in 2015 to some 7,800 km in 2020. The new lines and stations built throughout Xinjiang have helped to connect many of the major military bases and dual-use airports that dot the region, improving PLA logistics in the region by allowing for easier overland movement of troops, equipment, and supplies.” In Tibet, “China opened Tibet’s first high-speed rail line connecting the regional capital Lhasa with Nyingchi” and the new line “offers the ability to move civilians, as well as PLA troops and equipment, quickly across the eastern portion of Tibet”. The line has already been tested by carrying new PLA recruits, “likely belonging to the 52nd or 53rd Light Combined Arms Brigades” to an exercise field.