Beijing has opened a strategic highway that runs from Tibet to the Nepal border, and could be used for defence purposes if needed, according to Chinese media reports.

The 40.4-kilometre highway between Tibet’s Xigaze airport and Xigaze city centre officially opened to the public on Friday, with a short section linking the national highway to the Nepal border. The highway will shorten the journey from an hour to 30 minutes between Tibet’s second-largest city and the airport, which is used for both civil and military flights. The 25-meter-wide highway has four double lanes, and is classified a first-tier highway, according to local media reports.

China’s state-run Global Times quoted experts as saying the highway “will enable China to forge a route into South Asia in both economic and defence terms”. The highway also connects the border town of Zhangmu with Tibet’s capital Lhasa and can link with the future cross-border China-Nepal railway, said director of the Centre for Asia-Pacific Studies at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies Zhao Gancheng.

“The highway can be used by armoured vehicles and as a runway for planes to take off when it has to serve a military purpose. Although the railway connection is intended to boost regional development and not for military purposes, the move will still probably irritate India,” Zhao said.

China has been stepping up efforts to improve road connectivity between Tibet and Nepal. It also fasten plans to build a railway line to Nepal’s border after KP Sharma Oli, the pro-China former Nepalese prime minister, signed the Transit Trade Treaty with Beijing during his tenure in 2016.

Oli had signed the treaty at the height of the Madhesi agitation and their blockade of Indian goods. However, since the fall of Oli’s government, China’s plans to speed up its efforts to make forays into Nepal through infrastructure expansion slowed down even though Kathmandu signed up for Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative in May this year.