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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

A Rivalry on the Roof of the World

October 26, 2009

By Jyoti Thottam / New Delhi
TIME Magazine
November 2, 2009 Edition

Every cold war has its proxies. In a swath of
Himalayan mountains wedged between the northeast
Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh and China, they
can take the shape of things as mundane as the
empty beer bottles and cigarette butts left
behind by soldiers on patrol. Up in the
mountains, the Indian and Chinese armies monitor
a boundary whose line the two countries don't
agree on. In certain parts of that murky
borderland, the soldiers on night patrols often
leave behind evidence of their presence. When
relations between the two countries are good,
it's litter; when the situation is tense, the
detritus is marked in the official record as
evidence of "aggressive border-patrolling."
Without any direct military confrontation, the
tension between Asia's two aspiring superpowers is ratcheting up.

India and China have never been close, but of
late they have become engaged in increasingly
sharp rounds of diplomatic thrust and parry. In
September, India signaled its approval of a
planned visit by the Dalai Lama to the border
town of Tawang, the site of a famous Tibetan
Buddhist monastery — a move that China
interpreted as a provocation. Beijing then
objected to a visit by Manmohan Singh, the Indian
Prime Minister, to Arunachal Pradesh, claiming it
was part of Tibet, which belongs to China.
Outraged that China presumed to tell an Indian
leader not to go to territory legally recognized
as India's, New Delhi then objected to a new
power plant that China is building in
Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, territory that
India claims. Almost no one expects this year's
harsh words to escalate into military action, but
the hostility is real. "China is trying to see
how far India can be pushed," says Pushpita Das
of the Institute for Defense Studies & Security Analyses in New Delhi.

China and India share a border 2,175 miles (3,500
km) long. On the Indian side, it runs from states
in the northeast that are plagued by insurgency
to the glaciers of Ladakh, on the edge of
Kashmir. On the Chinese side, the region is just
as troubled, encompassing Tibet and Xinjiang,
home of the Uighurs, some of whom clashed
violently with Chinese earlier this year. India
and China fought a brief war in 1962, when China
captured territory in -- for India -- a
mortifyingly rapid incursion. They skirmished
again in 1967, but since 1993 the two countries
have coexisted more or less peacefully along an
undemarcated border. What's at stake now isn't
territory so much as influence and global status.
China is an economic powerhouse, but ever since
last year's signing of a civilian nuclear
agreement between the U.S. and India, Beijing has
become increasingly uneasy with India's growing
clout. "It's a competition between two systems:
chaotic, undergoverned India and orderly,
overgoverned China," says Mohan Guruswamy, an
Indian and a co-author of Chasing the Dragon, a
new book about the two countries' economic
rivalry. That competition continues, with the
U.S. trying to keep close ties to both sides in a
difficult balancing act that may turn out to be
the most important geopolitical challenge facing Washington this century.

The tiny Indian hill-station town of Tawang is
the unlikely center of the current confrontation.
It was there that Chinese troops entered India
during the 1962 war, and ever since, Tawang has
been the headquarters of an Indian-army brigade.
The soldiers are hard to miss because they are so
numerous — 15,000 among a population of 80,000 in
Tawang and the surrounding countryside. Chombay
Kee, a youth activist in Tawang, says the army is
a boon to local businesses. "When they go home on
leave," he says, "they take back gifts from here."

Most of the time, the troops just busy themselves
with field exercises in the local farms and
orchards. But every so often, things heat up.
This summer, China pressured the board of the
Asian Development Bank to block a $2.9 billion
loan to India, arguing that part of the money
would go to a flood-control project in Arunachal
Pradesh. The governor of the state, a retired
army general named J.J. Singh, then announced
that India would deploy 50,000 more troops up
there, though he tells TIME the additional troops
were planned well before any hint of tension --
and they haven't arrived yet. ("That's a future
plan," Singh says.) With or without extra
soldiers, India is watching the border. Singh
says the Chinese army recently staged a massive
training exercise in Tibet, with 50,000 personnel.

The military details obscure a more significant,
if less glamorous, theater of conflict:
infrastructure. It's telling that India has
demanded that China cease work on the $2 billion
Kohala power plant in Pakistani Kashmir. (The
62-year dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir is as
sensitive for India as Tibet is for China.) The
plant is part of a systematic effort by China to
assert its presence on the rim of the
subcontinent, where India has long been the
acknowledged superpower. In both Pakistan and Sri
Lanka, the Chinese are funding new ports. The
Chinese Foreign Minister visited Nepal last
December to launch construction of a new highway
connecting central Nepal to China, and soon
after, China announced plans to extend a
controversial railway to Tibet as far as the
border with Nepal. India is countering: after
Beijing agreed to develop a massive copper field
in Afghanistan, New Delhi pledged more than $1
billion in development aid to Kabul.

China's economy is more than twice the size of
India's, and Indian officials are sensitive about
the gap. When the two armies hold twice-yearly
meetings on the border in Arunachal, the Indian
officers arrive in powerful four-wheel-drive
vehicles, which are required for climbing the
rough mountain roads on the Indian side of the
border. Their Chinese counterparts cruise up the
smooth highways on the other side in luxury
sedans -- a detail that Indian-army officers
privately admit pains them. In 1962 it was
China's superior roads and bridges that allowed
its army to move into India so quickly, and the
embarrassment continues to gnaw. Raji Nainwal, a
student in 1962 and now a consultant on a hydro
project in Uttarakhand -- another border state --
worries, "Our dams are in the Himalayas. If China
[is] able to intrude and blast one of [them],
then what would happen?" (See pictures of China's investments in Africa.)

Of course, the geopolitical game has changed
since 1962. China is now intimately connected to
the U.S. economy and the holder of $797 billion
in Treasury securities. President Barack Obama
has tried to set a conciliatory tone with the
leaders in Beijing, agreeing not to meet the
Dalai Lama, whom they detest, before an expected
visit to China next month. At the same time, the
U.S. is forging much closer military ties to
India. Thanks to a monitoring agreement reached
this year, U.S. defense contractors can sell
technology freely to India. "India is probably
the most important country internationally for
us," says Garrett Mikita, president of defense
and space at Honeywell Aerospace, who went to New
Delhi recently to court Indian officials. The
company is one of two firms bidding to replace
the engines in India's 300 Jaguar fighter jets, a
contract worth as much as $5 billion. The engines
are aging and would need to be replaced anyway,
but Mikita says the recent tension with China has
sped up the lengthy procurement process. "The
timing of this has gotten more aggressive," he says.

Both sides will probably try to cool things down
at the coming summit of Southeast Asian nations
in Bangkok. Manmohan Singh and Chinese Premier
Wen Jiabao are expected to meet on the margins of
the meeting, although one conversation is
unlikely to sort out their complicated history.
Both countries are still absorbed in a game
played in miniature: recently, for example, a
Kashmiri student was given a Chinese visa that
was stapled rather than pasted into his passport,
an implicit questioning of Kashmir's status as a
state of India. Indian authorities, Guruswamy
says, then quietly suggested they might do the
same for Tibetans. Sure, this is small stuff. But
it could get bigger. And high in the Himalayas,
soldiers continue their patrols.
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