BEIJING (Reuters) - Tibet's environment will not be damaged by the construction of a second railroad linking the remote area to the rest of China, the region's deputy Communist Party boss said on Monday.
Tibet is a highly sensitive spot, not just because of continued opposition by many Tibetans to Chinese control, but because of its strategic location next to neighbors India, Myanmar and Nepal.
Critics have expressed concern over the environmental impact of the first railway to Lhasa, opened in 2006, which passes spectacular icy peaks on the Tibetan highlands and reaches altitudes as high as 5,000 m (16,400 ft) above sea level.
"The ecological environment of Tibet will not be harmed," Padma Choling, the vice party secretary of Tibet, told reporters on the sidelines of the annual parliament meeting.
"The railway will be well built under the condition of environmental protection. That is for sure. You can't just say, 'Don't build it'."
China announced plans on Saturday to build the railway linking the Tibetan capital of Lhasa with the southwestern city of Chengdu as part of a new five-year development plan.
Exiled Tibetans and rights groups also say the first railway has spurred an influx of long-term migrants who threaten Tibetans' cultural integrity, tied to Buddhist beliefs and a traditional herding lifestyle.
Chinese officials say the new railway link will bring development to Tibet and the government consistently denies any rights abuses or cultural disrespect there.
India, which had a brief border war with China in 1962, has looked on warily as China has built roads, railways and airports in Tibet, fearing they could be used to hurry troops to the border in a crisis.
Padma Choling rejected such concerns.
"No matter whether it takes 15 hours, or however long, to reach the border, the border belongs to our motherland," he said. "We Tibetans have the responsibility to guard it well."
(Reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)