Asia’s two great powers are facing off here in the eastern Himalayan mountains. China has vastly improved roads and is building or extending airports on its side of the border in Tibet. It has placed nuclear-capable intermediate missiles in the area and deployed around 300,000 troops across the Tibetan plateau, according to a 2010 Pentagon report.
India is in the midst of a 10-year plan to scale up its side. In the state of Arunachal Pradesh, new infantry patrols started on the frontier in May, as part of a surge to add some 60,000 men to the 120,000 already in the region. It has stationed two Sukhoi 30 fighter squadrons and will deploy the Brahmos cruise missile.
“If they can increase their military strength there, then we can increase our military strength in our own land,” Defence Minister A.K. Anthony told parliament recently.
Reuters journalists on a rare journey through the state discovered, however, that India is lagging well behind China in building infrastructure in the area.
The main military supply route through sparsely populated Arunachal is largely dirt track. Along the roadside, work gangs of local women chip boulders into gravel with hammers to repair the road, many with babies strapped to their backs. Together with a few creaky bulldozers, this is the extent of the army’s effort to carve a modern highway from the liquid hillside, one that would carry troops and weaponry to the disputed ceasefire line in any conflict with China.
India and China fought a brief frontier war here in 1962, and Chinese maps still show all of Arunachal Pradesh within China’s borders. The continuing standoff will test whether these two Asian titans – each with more than a billion people, blossoming trade ties and ambitions as global powers – can rise peacefully together. With the United States courting India in its “pivot” to Asia, the stakes are all the higher.
FIGHT AN INSURGENCY
“With the kind of developments that are taking place in the Tibet Autonomous Region, and infrastructure that is going up, it gives a certain capability to China,” India’s army chief, Gen. V.K. Singh, told Reuters the day before he left office on May 31. “And you say at some point, if the issue does not get settled, there could be some problem.”
Indian analysts and policymakers went further in their “Non-Alignment 2.0” report released this year. It argues India cannot “entirely dismiss the possibility of a major military offensive in Arunachal Pradesh,” and suggests New Delhi should prepare to fight an insurgency war if attacked.
“We feel very clearly that we need to develop the border infrastructure, engage with our border communities, do that entire development and leave our options open on how to respond to any border incursion, in case tensions ratchet up,” Rajiv Kumar, one of the report’s authors, said in an interview.
Indian media frequently run warnings of alleged Chinese plots, and both militaries drill near the border. In March, while China’s foreign minister was visiting Delhi, the Indian air force and army held an exercise dubbed “Destruction” in Arunachal’s mountains. Three weeks later, China said its J-10 fighters dropped laser-guided bombs on the Tibetan plateau in high-altitude ground-attack training.
Some policymakers play down the Arunachal face-off. Nuclear weapons on both sides would deter all-out war, and the forbidding terrain makes even conventional warfare difficult. A defense hotline and frequent meetings between top Chinese and Indian officials, including regular gatherings at the border, help ease the pressure. Bilateral trade, which soared to $74 billion in 2011 from a few billion dollars a decade ago, is also knitting ties.
From China’s perspective, the border dispute with India doesn’t rank with Beijing’s other border or military concerns, such as Taiwan. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin struck an optimistic tone.
“China and India are in consensus on the border issue, will work together to protect peace and calm in the border region, and also believe that by jointly working toward the same goal, negotiations on the border will yield results,” Liu said.
Hu Shisheng, a Sino-India expert at the government-backed China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, said the border dispute casts an oversized shadow in the Indian media – where the China threat is perceived to be strong. But any voices within the Chinese military that advocate seizing the region are weak, he said.
“China’s military could take the territory by force, but maintaining the gains in the long term would be exceptionally difficult,” Hu said, noting the tough terrain.
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