New Delhi: At a height of 3,250 metres above sea level, China commenced test flights at what it claims to be Xinjiang region’s “first super-high plateau airport” in Taxkorgan, the country’s state media reported.
Xinjiang has been under the international radar for human rights violations with China being accused of committing possible genocide against the Uyghur population and other mostly-Muslim ethnic groups in the region.
The test flights began with the landing of an Airbus A319-115 aircraft at Taxkorgan airport at 9 am Wednesday, Xinhua news service reported. Another Chinese media outlet, People’s Daily, shared an image of the aircraft that had landed at the airport, situated on the Pamir Plateau.
Taxkorgan Airport, located over 3,250 m above sea level, began test flights Wed on the Pamir Plateau, becoming the 1st super-high plateau airport in NW China's Xinjiang. The airport, scheduled to open in July, can handle 160,000 passengers & 400 tonnes of cargo and mail annually. pic.twitter.com/OjEpYJk8qi
— Modern China (@PDChinaBusiness) May 19, 2022
According to the Xinhua report, any airport located at a height of 2,438 metres above sea level, or more, is considered a “super-high plateau” airport.
“Equipped with a 3,800-metre runway, the airport is designed to handle an annual throughput of 160,000 passengers and 400 tonnes of cargo and mail,” the report added.
As China showcases the readiness of the airport by announcing the commencement of test flights, along with its upcoming opening in July — all these not only represent a first-of-its-kind construction for China but also points to a milestone of strategic significance.
According to the Chinese news site Seetao, the airport’s construction began on 26 April 2020 amid the Covid pandemic. It marked the breaking ground of a 1.63 billion yuan investment by the Chinese government, as part of its thirteenth Five-Year Plan.
Throughout the construction period, Xinhua news kept providing updates on the progress, once in June 2020 and then again in August last year.
Located on the Karakoram Highway, Taxkurgan lies east of China’s border with Tajikistan and a little over 200 km north of Gilgit, the capital of the Gilgit-Baltistan province in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).
Given the region’s close proximity to Gilgit-Baltistan, Taxkorgan Airport is also said to form part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)’s “series of infrastructure developments”.
When China first announced the plans to build the airport in April 2015, then-Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Liu Jianchao downplayed concerns flagged by India, stating that the airport plan and overall CPEC project “does not concern the relevant dispute between India and Pakistan”.
“Taxkorgan has assumed more importance following China’s $46-billion economic corridor linking Kashgar in Xinjiang, through Taxkorgan and across into the PoK all the way to the Gwadar port on the coast of the Arabian Sea. The corridor envisages road, rail links as well as pipelines which provide a direct source for oil import for China from West Asia and the Arabian Sea,” India Today had reported about the city in April 2015.
According to the director of the think tank Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy (AIES), Velina Tchakarova, the Taxkorgan airport represents “a significant long term investment” for China.
“The construction of Taxkorgan Airport on the Pamir Plateau in the northwestern Uighur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang is a significant long-term investment, as Taxkorgan is “China’s only county-level city bordering three countries—Tajikistan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan,”” Tchakarova wrote in an opinion piece for think tank, Observer Research Foundation, citing a report from Chinese TV news network CGTN.