China’s Ambitious ‘5G-A’ Plans in Tibet: Strategic Implications for India

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China’s Ambitious ‘5G-A’ Plans in Tibet: Strategic Implications for India

China’s expansion of the “low-altitude economy” with cutting-edge tech has deep implications for its surveillance capabilities along the disputed border.

China’s Ambitious ‘5G-A’ Plans in Tibet: Strategic Implications for India
Credit: Depositphotos

On May 21, China achieved significant progress toward the establishment of a “low-altitude economy” in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), with the successful functional verification of its first ever 5G-Advanced (5.5G) synaesthesia integrated base station in Lhoka (Shannan) Prefecture bordering the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. The 5G-A synaesthesia integrated base stations have been described by Huawei as a new revolutionary technology, along with passive IoT and endogenous intelligence, spurred by the 5G-A era.

China has developed the new 5G-A base stations to overcome the longstanding challenges faced by its traditional radars and cameras in terms of detecting and identifying small-sized drones operating within low-altitude airspace. These 5G-A base stations are equipped with comprehensive sensing capabilities that enable identification, real-time positioning, speed detection, and tracking of low-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles, ground vehicles, and other illegally intrusive targets. Following the completion of the first station, the China Mobile Tibet Company announced that its 5G-A base station has detection capabilities surpassing traditional radars. According to the company, the goal of these base stations in Tibet’s border areas is to build low-altitude sensing networks, thereby fostering the development of drone inspection and early warning systems. 

On April 29, Huawei and China Tibet Mobile Company completed construction of another 5G-A base station on Mount Everest near the Indian border.

At the heart of Beijing’s broader strategic vision of establishing a “low-altitude economy” lies the construction of 5G-A synaesthesia integrated base stations, enhancing the network infrastructure and connectivity within low-altitude airspace. The use of 5G-A is a recent development in China, with 2024 being marked as the starting year for its commercialization. On June 6, over 35 Chinese cities including Beijing, Changchun, Harbin, Chengdu, and Tianjin, promoted the upgrade and evolution of existing 5G networks to 5G-A, while launching the “Joining Hands to Open a New Era of 5G-A” initiative.

The low-altitude economy refers to various economic activities occurring within the vertical airspace that extends from 1,000 to 4,000 meters above the ground where civil-manned and unmanned aircraft vehicles operate and promote the integrated development of related fields.

China’s strategic vision for a “low-altitude economy” is enshrined in the “Implementation Plan for Innovative Application of General Aviation Equipment (2024-2030)” published on March 27 of this year. It describes China’s overarching goal of achieving safe and efficient operation of low-altitude production and operation networks by 2030, setting a target for the low-altitude economy to be worth 1 trillion yuan that same year. 

More significantly, the plan has also particularly placed 5G-A synaesthesia integrated technology as the cornerstone of the development of the low-altitude economy industry. 

5G-A Synaesthesia Integrated Bases as the Backbone of the Low-Altitude Economy

The innovation of synaesthesia integrated technology in 5G-A has garnered great attention in China recently. 5G-A synaesthesia integrated technology combines multiple capabilities such as communications, imaging, and computing power, turning a regular communication network into a supercharged “radar,” with high-precision and resolution perception capabilities.

The 5G-A synaesthesia integrated base stations are the fulcrum of the “low-altitude economy,” as popularized with news headlines such as “5G-A enables the low-altitude economy to take off” by China National Radio (CNR) on May 22. CNR paraphrased Cao Lei, deputy director of the Wireless and Terminal Technology Research Institute of the China Academy of Mobile Communications, as saying that “based on 5G-A technology, a new low-altitude intelligent network infrastructure can be created that integrates ‘communication, detection, navigation, and control,’ providing businesses with low-altitude network information transmission, supplementary safety controls, and other services, enabling the vigorous development of the low-altitude economy.”

China’s Northeast Securities Co. also reiterated that “5G-A (5.5G) introduced integration sensing technology is expected to become the core communication technology for low-altitude economic air traffic control systems.” 

The 5G-A technology is not only superior to the 5G technology in terms of a tenfold increase in connectivity, speeds, and coverage but also provides a critical boost to managing unmanned aerial vehicles, thus revolutionizing industries focused on the low-altitude space. Tang Xue, vice president of ZTE, aptly articulated that 5G-A “isn’t about faster internet; it represents a paradigm shift in the way we live, work, and play.” 

Therefore, these new 5G-A synaesthesia integrated bases in Tibet will be the catalyst to the establishment of a low-altitude network system, which will enhance communication, sensing, and computing services for drones operating in the low-altitude air spaces near the border areas.

Strategic Implications for the China-India border dispute

Yin Hao, an academician of the China Academy of Science, emphasized the need for a comprehensive monitoring service system for unmanned vehicles and drones during the “Wireless Sensory Integration Forum” on April 16. While speaking on the innovative directions of 5G-A, Yin highlighted the fact that cellular information networks can assist large-scale deployment of base stations with wireless sensing functions, enabling ubiquitous and continuous monitoring and tracking of low-altitude aerial vehicles. 

The primary objective of the “low-altitude economy” is the commercialization of low-altitude airspace, which mainly includes drone delivery services, winged taxis for daily commutes, and drones or helicopters for tourism purposes. However, this emerging strategic industry also caters to the diverse needs of military players in the commercial, industrial, and civil sectors. 

Notably, the world’s first 5G-A 128TR synaesthesia base station equipped with maritime monitoring technology was just completed in March in Zhejiang province, showcasing its use for maritime security. Similarly, the construction of 5G-A base stations in Tibet’s border areas holds major strategic benefits for China. The technology bolsters infrastructure and network systems surrounding drone operations for both civilian and military purposes. The 5G-A synaesthesia integrated base stations in Tibet are presumed to support China’s border operations and management. 

On April 16, a 5G-A base station in China’s southwestern province of Yunnan was built for border monitoring. Afterward, Yunnan Mobile announced that this base caters to the needs of the Public Security Bureau, enhancing their border inspection and supervision tasks. 

These bases can be used for military and security applications in border areas in multiple scenarios. First, these 5G-A base stations possess many functions that could directly benefit the Chinese border defense forces or police including their capabilities for detection and monitoring, classification or identification, locating and tracking, alerting, drone support, reconnaissance, communication, and others. With these critical functions, the 5G-A synaesthesia integrated bases will significantly strengthen the management and monitoring capabilities of drones along the border.

Second, these base stations can bolster the PLA’s anti-drone defense system and serve as an early warning system against drone intrusion in its border areas, as remarked by the China Tibet telecom company in Shannan prefecture. 

Third, the roll-out of 5G-A enhances China’s Smart Border Defense capabilities across the TAR’s border areas, defined as using modern scientific and technological methods to conduct real-time, comprehensive, and accurate monitoring and control of national borders. 

Thus, China’s “low-altitude economy” is not only a major economic boost but also a significant push to form a long-term mechanism to ensure national security and stability in border areas. Moreover, the construction of 5G-A bases and the development of the low-altitude economy aligns with Beijing’s broader goal of strengthening border defense by revitalizing and developing the border area.


Amid heightened border tensions between India and China, the construction and operationalization of the 5G-A synaesthesia integrated base under the broader “low-altitude economy” vision are directly linked to Beijing’s strategic interest in bolstering border defense and security. These represent the latest developments in the ongoing drone race between India and China in the Himalayas. 

China has already built 11,719 5G base stations in the TAR. A recent official announcement during the High-Quality Development Mobile Communications Forum indicated that the 5G network across China will be upgraded to 5G-A network. It implies that more 5G-A synaesthesia integrated base stations will be constructed in TAR. The 5G-A base stations and the development of the “low-altitude economy” have the potential to revolutionize the PLA’s drone warfare and anti-drone defense systems in Tibet’s border areas.

On the other side, the Indian military has also strengthened its defense against drone attacks and intrusions along its Himalayan border with the recent induction of laser-based Integrated Drone Detection and Interdiction Systems, capable of both “soft” and “hard” kills, including jamming and laser-based interception.

The TAR constitutes a portion of the historical geography of Tibet, with the traditional areas of Tibet comprising almost the entirety of the Tibetan Plateau. Since the People’s Republic of China’s occupation of Tibet in the 1950s, China’s economic policies in Tibet have always been closely tied to its strategic and military visions, encompassing infrastructure development, rural and urban construction projects, energy infrastructure projects, dams, and many more. The establishment of the “low-altitude economy” in the TAR represents Beijing’s latest attempt to transform the region into a highly militarized zone and strengthen its preparedness for potential conflicts with adversaries. 

It is imperative to understand that 5G-A synaesthesia integrated bases in China are still in the developmental and testing stage. Some critics doubt the feasibility of such a grand vision of establishing a “low-altitude economy” in the Tibet Autonomous Region. In fact, there are many uncertainties and operational challenges facing China’s plan in the harsh and rugged terrains and atmosphere of the Tibetan plateau. However, concerns regarding the expansion of the “low-altitude economy” in Tibet’s border areas and its strategic ramification demand serious consideration and continuous monitoring.