* Festering border dispute risks being catalyst for flare-up
* Both sides building up, but India's main supply route a
* India sees China as rival for power and resources in Asia
* Next Dalai Lama may come from India side of Tibetan
* China sees Dalai as separatist; followers view him as
By Frank Jack Daniel
TAWANG, India, July 30 It has all the appearance
of an arms race on the roof of the world.
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
defence 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
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.
Yet with both nations undertaking massive naval
modernisations and brushing up against each other's interests
across South Asia and in the South China Sea, the festering
dispute risks being the catalyst for a violent flare-up, some
security analysts say.
STRING OF PEARLS
For thousands of years, Chinese and Indian empires were kept
apart by the Himalayas. After years of fast economic growth, the
rivals now have the resources to consolidate and patrol their
most distant regions.
India is starting to feel fenced in by Chinese agreements
with its neighbours that are not strictly military but could be
leveraged in a conflict.
Indians sometimes refer to these as a "string of pearls,"
which includes China's force deployments in Tibet, access to a
Myanmar naval base, and Chinese construction of a deepwater port
in Hambantota, Sri Lanka, and another in Gwadar, Pakistan.
Some in the Chinese government worry that India is becoming
part of a U.S. strategy to contain China. The United States has
sold $8 billion in weapons to India, which is spending about
$100 billion over 10 years to modernize its military.
The two nations are unlikely to go to war, but have no
choice but to add to their military strength on the border as
they gain clout, a senior Indian official with direct experience
of Sino-Indian relations told Reuters.
"It is the currency of power," he said. In the border
negotiations, "we are ready to compromise, but up to a point."
The road to Tawang, a centre of Tibetan Buddhism by the
border, is one of India's most strategic military supply routes.
Growling convoys of army trucks bring troops, food and fuel
through three Himalayan passes on the 320-kilometer (199-mile)
muddy coil to camps dotted along the disputed border.
On a road trip in late May and early June, Reuters found
much of the 14,000-foot-high road to be a treacherous rutted
trail, often blocked by landslides or snow, despite years of
promises to widen and resurface it.
At its start in the insurgent-hit tropical plains of Assam
state, the Tawang road is guarded by soldiers armed with Israeli
rifles and shoulder-mounted rocket launchers who sweep for
roadside bombs. Near the end - a tough two-day drive - is the
300-year-old white-walled Tawang monastery.
In the higher reaches, the army convoys struggle along
rock-walled valleys to bases near the McMahon Line, the border
agreed to by India and Tibet in a 1914 treaty and now the de
facto frontier with China. It is the only way in. Supplies are
taken to even remoter army posts by 50-mule caravans on
Along the tortuous road, soldiers can be seen shooting at
targets on a firing range. Rows of ammunition sheds behind
barbed wire dot the landscape on a chilly plateau shared with
New fuel depots and small bases are springing up. In
addition to deploying extra troops, missiles and fighter jets in
Arunachal, India plans to buy heavy-lift choppers to carry light
artillery to the mountains.
China rules restive Tibet with an iron hand, and tightly
restricts visits by foreign media, making independent
assessments of the military presence in the region hard. But all
signs indicate much more sophisticated infrastructure on the
Chinese side of the border.
During the last government-organised visit to Tibet, in
2010, a Reuters journalist saw half a dozen Su-27 fighters, some
of the most advanced and lethal aircraft China owns, operating
from Lhasa's Gonggar airport. China has been building or
extending airports across vast and remote Tibet, all of which
have a dual military-civilian use.
Meanwhile, residents on the Indian side of the border report
the Chinese have built smooth, hard-topped roads stretching to
Tibet's capital of Lhasa. Chinese border posts, like India's
today, were once only reachable by horse or mule. Now they are
connected by asphalt.
Beyond the frontier, the Chinese improvements include laying
asphalt on a historic highway across the region of Aksai Chin,
which is claimed by India. The construction of the
Xinjiang-Tibet national highway 50 years ago shocked India and
contributed to the 1962 war.
China's rails are improving, too: Beijing opened a train
line from Tibet to the region in 2006, and an extension is
planned into a prefecture bordering Arunachal.
In a 2010 cable released by Wikileaks, a U.S. diplomat
concluded that infrastructure development in Lhoka prefecture,
which according to China includes Tawang, was in part to prepare
a "rear base" should a border clash arise.
For years, India deliberately neglected infrastructure in
Arunachal Pradesh, partly so it could act as a natural buffer
against any Chinese invasion. That policy was dropped when the
extent of development on China's side became clear.
In 2008, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made his first trip
to Arunachal and promised $4 billion to build a 1,700-kilometer
(1,055-mile) highway joining the valleys of the state as well as
a train line connecting to New Delhi. These would also make
troop movements easier.
Around the same time, former army chief Gen. J.J. Singh was
appointed governor of the state and is ramping up
infrastructure, power and telecom projects.
"Never before in the history of this region has such a
massive development programme been conducted here," he said,
sipping tea at his residence.
Singh, who spent much of his army career in Arunachal, said
India and China both realise "there is enough place and space
for both of us to develop. A very mature and pragmatic approach
is being taken by both."
But despite 15 rounds of high-level talks, the border issue
looks as knotty as ever. Indian media often whip up anger at
Chinese border incursions, played down by both governments as a
natural result of differing perceptions of where the border
lies. India's defence minister told parliament 500 incursions
have been reported in the last two years.
Unable to match China's transport network, India's focus is
now on maintaining more troops close to the border.
"India struggles to build up infrastructure," said Ashley
Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who
has written extensively on the India-China relationship. "They
have been trying to do this for the past six or seven years now,
and it is progressing far more slowly than they would like. What
they have done in the interim is build up the troop strength."
COURTING THE LAMAS
One of main irritants in India-China relations, and a key
part of China's claim to Arunachal, is Tibetan Buddhism. Beijing
claims a centuries-old sovereignty over Arunachal and the rest
of the Himalayan region.
India hosts the Dalai Lama and his Tibetan
government-in-exile. When the Dalai Lama fled Chinese rule in
Tibet in 1959, his first stop was the Buddhist monastery in the
Arunachal town of Tawang near the border. Three years later,
China occupied the fortress-like hilltop monastery in the 1962
war before withdrawing to the current lines.
In the 17th century, Tawang district was the birthplace of
the sixth Dalai Lama. Deified as his latest incarnation, the
current Dalai Lama visited the monastery in 2009 and has hinted
his next reincarnation will be born in India. Some say in
Tibetan Buddhists see the Dalai Lama as a living god; China
sees him as a separatist threat. Many in the Indian security
community worry that instability in Tibet after his death could
So, New Delhi is wooing the locals. The intermingling of the
Indian army and the Tawang monks is striking. War memorials on
the road are built in the style of Tibetan Buddhist stupas, with
prayer wheels and flags. Soldiers frequently visit the temple,
and advise the lamas about troop movements and developments on
Lobsang Thapke, a senior lama at the monastery, says India's
troop buildup has made the monks feel safe, but that India was
far from matching China's road-building prowess.
"From our side, we have to go through a lot of difficulty,"
he said in a carpeted room above the main hall, where child
monks chanted morning prayers. "They (India) have not
black-topped. Gravelling has not been done."
ANGER AND ANXIETY
The Indian footprint here isn't always welcome. India's new
wealth is seen in the multi-storey hotels mushrooming between
traditional wood-and-stone houses in town, and new Fords and
Hyundais on the hilly streets.
But anger is rising about a lack of jobs and perceptions
that government corruption is rampant. Student movements have
organised strikes in the state capital.
Hotel worker Dorjee Leto says educated young people like
himself feel forgotten by India. There is almost no mobile phone
coverage, power cuts that last days, and just that long muddy
road to the outside world.
Anxiety over China, however, outweighs the irritation with
India, says Leto, who like most in Tawang is a follower of
"It's a fear, because already China has annexed Tibet. We
feel part of India, we are used to India," he said.
(Additional reporting by Satarupa Bhattacharjya in New Delhi;
Biswajyoti Das in Arunchal Pradesh; Michael Martina and Ben
Blanchard in Beijing; editing by Bill Tarrant and Michael