The visit this week to Tibet by Chinese President Xi Jinping underscores China’s concerns over security on the border with its southern neighbor India, where military clashes between the two countries took place last year, experts told RFA on Friday.
Xi Jinping’s visit on Thursday and Friday to Lhasa, capital of China’s Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), was his first since becoming China’s president in 2013 and went unannounced ahead of time by the Chinese press.
He had visited Tibet previously as vice president in 2011 when Chen Quanguo, now Communist Party chief in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), was party chief in Tibet.
Residents’ movements in the city were restricted and factories closed, with construction work halted and Lhasa’s iconic Potala Palace—winter residence of exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama—also closed for the day, sources in the city told RFA in an exclusive report on July 21.
In a July 23 report, China’s Xinhua news service said that the Chinese president had met with officials in Lhasa to extend congratulations on the 70th anniversary of China’s “peaceful liberation” of Tibet.
The anniversary marks the signing in 1951 of the 17-Point Agreement, an agreement granting control of the country forced on Tibet by China, which had already invaded eastern regions of the country, under threat of further military action.
The Chinese president’s visit to Tibet may also have been intended to signal to India that Xi Jinping is prioritizing the issue of tensions along India’s border with China, regional experts based in India told RFA in interviews on Friday.
Writing on Friday, China’s Xinhua news service noted that Xi Jinping had flown into Kongpo (in Chinese, Nyingchi), in southern Tibet, on Wednesday and then traveled to Lhasa by train along an elevated railway being built to link Tibet with western China’s Sichuan province.
Xi Jinping’s travel by train had given the Chinese president a first-hand look at the progress of construction on what Beijing considers a key rail line, said retired Indian general Druv Katoch, a former director at New Delhi’s Center for Land and Warfare Studies.
“I think that is very significant, because what has really happened with the construction of these rail lines is that the distance to Lhasa from [Sichuan’s capital] Chengdu, which is the headquarters of the local military region, has decreased to just 13 hours,” Katoch said.
“This gives China the ability to move large numbers of troops in a very short time into the Tibet region in the event of hostilities,” he said.
“I think the president had really come to check on that, especially in view of the fact of the clashes which took place between India and China last year in eastern Ladakh,” Katoch said.
Thousands of Indian and Chinese troops faced off in June 2020 at three or four locations in Ladakh in the western Himalayas after Beijing’s forces intruded into Indian territory, with deaths reported by both sides in the fighting.
Rail line close to India
Also speaking to RFA, retired Indian Army colonel Vinayak Bhat agreed that Xi Jinping’s visit to Kongpo and travel to Lhasa by train was a significant development for India, with the rail line lying very near the Indian border.
“The distance between [India’s] Arunachal Pradesh and Nyingchi is only around 160 kilometers, and I feel he doesn’t need to visit these areas at the moment as there are border disputes between [the two countries],” Bhat said, adding, “He is surely sending a message to India.”
“Wait for India’s response to this,” he said.
Sana Hamshi, a visiting fellow at the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation, agreed on the significance of China’s construction of rail lines and other infrastructure in Tibet, especially near the politically sensitive and China-claimed Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.
India must look closely at China’s military buildup in Tibet, “and the border is one of the most important areas of concern,” she said.
“Xi Jinping visited Nyingchi prefecture’s airport, which is very near to Arunachal Pradesh, and he wanted to examine the physical infrastructure and to make sure that everything is in place so that China actually has the upper hand with respect to Tibet,” Hamshi said.
“[However], China is also very insecure and vulnerable about its control, and about whatever is happening inside Tibet, and also because of the presence of Tibetans in exile, and about the support of other countries for Tibet,” she said.
Formerly an independent nation, Tibet was invaded and incorporated into China by force nearly 70 years ago, after which Tibet’s spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and thousands of his followers fled into exile in India and other countries around the world following a failed 1959 uprising against
Chinese authorities maintain a tight grip on the region, restricting Tibetans’ political activities and peaceful expression of cultural and religious identity, and subjecting Tibetans to persecution, torture, imprisonment, and extrajudicial killings.
Reported by RFA’s Tibetan Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.