The draft outline of the Five-Year Plan (FYP) and objectives through the year 2035 were passed by the National People’s Congress.
China on Thursday formally approved the outline of its 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025), which highlights a number of key strategic projects to be pursued as a priority including the first dam in Tibet on the lower reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo or Brahmaputra, a Sichuan-Tibet railway line near the India border, and a push for self-sufficiency in emerging industries such as Artificial Intelligence (AI).
The draft outline of the Five-Year Plan (FYP) and objectives through the year 2035 were passed by the National People’s Congress, the ceremonial legislature, as it closed its six-day annual session. Among the key projects is the building of a hydropower base on the lower reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo, which refers to the sections of the river in Tibet just before it enters India in Arunachal Pradesh. While four dams have been approved on the upper and middle reaches, this is the first project in the lower reaches of the river. Che Dalha, deputy Communist Party chief of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), said at the NPC authorities should “strive to begin construction this year” of the dam and for “environmental impact assessments for the project to be approved as soon as possible”.
India has expressed concerns over the four previously announced dams on the upper and middle reaches, the first of which, in Zangmu, was operationalised in 2015. The impact of the dams on downstream flows is not clear, and Indian officials have said they are monitoring flows of the river closely, both through independent assessments and using the hydrological data that China provides under a bilateral arrangement. The Brahmaputra is not entirely dependent on upstream flows with an estimated 35% of its basin in India, according to officials.
Dams on the lower reaches and at the Great Bend of the river near the border, which has been cited as a possible location for the new project, would raise worries because of the location across the border from Arunachal Pradesh in an ecologically sensitive canyon. Past projects to tap the enormous hydropower potential of the Great Bend were not given approval, but the inclusion of the project in the FYP suggests it has been sanctioned at the highest level and is now a high-priority official policy, viewed as a key element of a broader push to diversify China’s energy mix and meet a target of peaking carbon emissions by 2030.
The hydropower base was listed in the outline of the FYP among projects that serve major national strategies, along with the Sichuan-Tibet railway. The FYP highlighted the railway from Ya’an in Sichuan to Nyingchi in Tibet as a key infrastructure project. It also called to “advance the preparatory work” for building a railway line from Xigaze in Tibet to Gyirong along the Tibet-Nepal border, which is part of an already agreed plan to build a cross-border railway link connecting China and Nepal. The FYP also emphasised opening up access to key border highways including the strategically important G219 national highway that runs along the entire length of the India-China border in Xinjiang and Tibet.
The rail from Ya’an to Nyingchi in Tibet, which lies just across from Arunachal Pradesh, is the first segment of a line that will eventually run to Lhasa and is the second major rail link from China’s hinterland to Tibet. President Xi Jinping in November officially “gave the instruction” to begin work on the project, calling it “a major step in safeguarding national unity and a significant move in promoting economic and social development of the western region.” Zhu Weiqun, a senior Party official formerly in charge of Tibet policy, said last year the railway will help “transport advanced equipment and technologies from the rest of China to Tibet and bring local products out” and “if a scenario of a crisis happens at the border, the railway can act as a ‘fast track’ for the delivery of strategic materials.”
Beyond the strategic infrastructure projects, the broader goal of the FYP and the 2035 outline emphasised establishing China’s self-sufficiency in key high-tech industries. While the FYP for the first time did not outline a growth target, it listed an annual target to increase R&D spending “by more than 7% per year”. It said China “will take self-reliance in science and technology as strategic underpinning for national development” and “will focus on the development of strategic emerging industries including information technology, biotech and new energy”. The plan said China “will implement a series of forward-looking and strategic major national sci-tech projects in frontier fields of artificial intelligence, quantum information, integrated circuits, life and health, brain science, gene technologies and clinical medicine.”