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China’s new bullet trains in Tibet run close to disputed Indian border

A Fuxing bullet train seen during a test run on the new Tibetan railway line last week. Photo: Xinhua

A new high-speed railway line began operating in Tibet on Friday, taking passengers from the regional capital Lhasa to the eastern city of Nyingchi, close to China’s disputed border with India.

It is the first electrified railway line in Tibet and bullet trains will travel the route at 160km (99 miles) per hour – the fastest in the mountainous region.

The 435km (270-mile) journey between Lhasa and Nyingchi will take 3½ hours.

Nyingchi is a frontier town located less than 16km (10 miles) from the de facto border between China and India. The new railway line comes as China and India are speeding up construction of infrastructure on either side of the border, where heightened tensions led to a deadly clash between soldiers in June last year in the Galwan Valley.

Zhang Li, a professor with the Institute of South Asian Studies at Sichuan University, said the bullet trains would have a big impact on the region.

“Transport in southern Tibet wasn’t too convenient before, so the new railway will be of great significance not only for the development of Tibet but it will also have a far-reaching impact on the situation at the China-India border,” Zhang said.

He added that it would help to develop and secure China’s border region and to maintain its strategic advantage in the area.

Passengers take the new fast train service from Lhasa to Nyingchi on Friday. Photo: Xinhua

The new railway is part of a larger high-speed development linking Tibet in the west with neighbouring Sichuan province. When it is built, that route will connect Lhasa with Chengdu and will be the second railway into Tibet after the Qinghai route that opened in 2006.

President Xi Jinping has said the Sichuan-Tibet project would play a key role in safeguarding border stability, while Premier Li Keqiang described it as a “major strategic deployment”.

Military commentator Song Zhongping said the planned railway and road network across Tibet would develop the regional economy.

“Of course, it will also benefit defence construction throughout Tibet,” Song said.

Long Xingchun, director of the Centre for Indian Studies at China West Normal University, said once the service from Nyingchi through to Sichuan was completed it would be used to transport military personnel and equipment to the border area.

“The Sichuan-Tibet railway will be significant for transporting military equipment, weapons and personnel,” Long said, adding that Sichuan province had played a key role in providing troops and equipment to the border region in Tibet.

At the same time, India is also investing in infrastructure along its side of the border, particularly in the Himalayan region of Ladakh.

“India has many big projects under way this year including highways, bridges and tunnel projects as it tries to narrow the gap with China,” Zhang said. “These are being done with clear military considerations.”

The new Chinese railway line is also part of Beijing’s efforts to maintain stability in Tibet, a region it claims to have “peacefully liberated” in 1951.

“It is more important to the stability of Tibet itself and to strengthen security along the border through exchanges with other provinces, including Sichuan, to keep Tibet from separating from China,” Long said.