China extends strategic highway to Nepal border via Tibet

19 September 2017

China has extended a highway in Tibet to the Nepal border that runs parallel to the Xigaze-Lhasa railway, opening a new front for Beijing's multi-billion dollar Belt and Road initiative.

The 40.4-kilometre highway in Tibet between Xigaze airport and Xigaze city centre, which officially opened to the public on Friday, has a short section from Tibet to the Nepal border that could be used for civilian and defence purposes.

The highway will shorten the journey between the dual-use civil and military airport and Tibet's second-largest city from an hour to 30 minutes.

The road and rail connectivity can be extended to South Asia through India, Bhutan and to Bangladesh.

The highway G318 with Xigaze city in the middle connects Nyingchi, the Tibetan town close to Arunachal Pradesh border with Nepal with the highway running very close to the border.

China has been encouraged by the earlier pro-China government in Nepal led by K P Sharma Oli to step up efforts to improve road connectivity between Tibet and Nepal while speeding up plans to build a railway line connecting to Nepal's border.

Oli signed a Transit Trade Treaty with Beijing last year, at the height of the Madhesi agitation and the blockade of Indian goods, to provide a major opening for China to reduce the dependence of the landlocked country on India.

Transportation of essentials through the Himalayan terrain of Tibet would entail heavy costs for Nepal.

However, ith the fall of Oli government in Nepal, China's plans to speed up its infrastructure expansion into Nepal through slowed down even though Kathmandu signed up for Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative in May this year.

China itself seems to have acknowledged the fact that the dual-purpose connectivity would irritate India. "Although the railway connection between China and Nepal is intended to boost regional development and not for military purposes, the move will still probably irritate India," the state-run Global Times quoted Zhao Gancheng, director of the Centre for Asia-Pacific Studies at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies as saying.

On the other hand, Wei Qianggao, deputy head of the Tibet transportation department was quoted as saying, "The road is Tibet's first real highway. It is our gift toward the upcoming 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. As an important traffic program in the 13th Five-Year Plan and a core section of the Tibet Autonomous Region's highway network, the road will benefit the export-oriented economy of Xigaze and the complex traffic around Lhasa."

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