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China’s upcoming high-altitude airport appears from space

Chinese satellite images suggest that underground facilities are being built underneath the airport in Tashkurgan. The high-altitude airport is often touted as the future base for Chinese ambitions in Central Asia even though it is still under construction. In addition to Tajikistan and Afghanistan, Tashkurgan is near Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). A Chinese civil aviation authority first announced a plan to build an airport on the high plateaus of the Pamir in 2015.

It took until April 2020 for construction to begin on this site. In May 2020, there was a scuffle between Indian and Chinese forces in Ladakh’s Pangong Tso. According to Planet Labs’ analysis of high-resolution commercial satellite imagery, the upcoming airport is likely to have dual uses. ‘These secure underground facilities confirm the Chinese intentions in the region; their uses are not yet known, but it will provide a level of concealment and protection for the Chinese operations,’ Col Vinayak Bhat (Retd) said.

The satellite images dated May 28, 2021 also show construction on other parts of the airbase in addition to the underground facilities. Satellite images clearly show the blacktopping of runways and construction of the terminal area, along with stone crushing machines, land moving equipment and construction trucks. Tashkurgan’s 3,800 metre runway is slightly longer than Hotan’s due to its higher altitude. According to experts, Tashkurgan’s strategic location benefits the Chinese leadership, which has varying interests and concerns in the region.

With rapidly changing dynamics in Afghanistan, this will be one of China’s strategic routes into the Arabian Sea and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), says retired Col Vinayak Bhat (Retd). According to him, China may also be concerned about the spread of Islamist movements following the rise of the Taliban, which could fuel more insurgencies in Xinjiang. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi hosted a Taliban delegation recently that met with the Chinese Foreign Minister. ‘The Taliban is expected to play an important role in the process of peaceful reconciliation and reconstruction in Afghanistan,’ the Chinese foreign ministry stated.

As a result of these developments, the Afghan Ambassador to India, Farid Mamundzay, was quoted as saying, ‘China is also suffering from terrorism and would continue to suffer so long as terrorist groups remain active in Afghanistan’. People’s Liberation Army (PLA) ground forces have also deployed near the Badakhshan area of Afghanistan. The new airbase in Tashkurgan overlooks the strategic Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan, which separates Tajikistan from Pakistan and PoK.

Read more: Pakistan’s ISI hatches new terror plans ahead of August 15 with 8 new routes and a PoK control room

The Chinese media reports that the initial airport design had a terminal building, four aircraft stands, a tower, an 800 square meter air traffic control building and supporting facilities such as fuel supply, power supply and firefighting. The airport will be able to accommodate 1,60,000 passengers and 400 tons of cargo annually once it is completed. However, considering the low number of Chinese tourists visiting these areas every year, the airport is of greater strategic significance than a tourist destination. According to Chinese media reports, the project is likely to be completed sometime in the middle of 2022.


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