New Delhi/Beijing: Anger over troop deployments, reports of border incursions, and a high-pitched media debate have reignited strains between China and India over long-festering border disputes in the Himalayas.
The details of whether boots actually crossed borders are murky, but experts in both countries agree that tensions have risen, highlighting the fragility of relations between the giant neighbours jostling for dominance.
The two Asian powers have disputed their 3,500 km (2,200 mile) border since a 1962 war. In that war China seized much of the Himalayan high ground, worrying India which traditionally sees the mountain range as a strategic buffer against invaders.
Despite decades of mistrust, trade is booming and China is now India’s biggest trade partner. The value of bilateral deals is expected to pass $60 billion next year, a 30-fold increase since 2000, raising the stakes in maintaining peace.
While a new war is very unlikely, the unsettled border between the world’s two most populous countries remains the biggest single impediment to better relations.
There have been 13 rounds of largely fruitless talks in recent years.
”The temperature on the border is rising,” said former Indian foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal. ”The situation is disturbing political circles.”
China has upgraded roads on its side of the border while India has boosted troop numbers on its more challenging terrain.
Beijing tried to block a $60 million Asian Development Bank loan sought by India for development in one contested area, and has protested activities of exiled Tibetan leader Dalai Lama, who is based in India.
And in India, as the summer drew to a close, there were almost daily media reports of border incursions by China, presented as a sign China is growing more assertive.
Brahma Chellaney, professor at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, says Chinese cross-border forays nearly doubled from 140 in 2006 to 270 in 2008 and have kept that level in 2009.
”The situation is now hotter than the Pakistan border,” he said.
China criticizes India media
China has not directly commented on the allegations, saying only that it sticks to an agreement to ”safeguard peace and tranquility”, but foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu did obliquely accuse Indian media of stirring up tensions.
”I have noted that some Indian media are releasing inaccurate information; I wonder what their aim is?” she said.
Cheng Ruisheng, former ambassador to India and now adviser to the Chinese government on relations with its neighbour, told Reuters there were no incursions.
”China is dealing with so many things, it has no idea of having any kind of military conflict with India,” he said.
Taylor Fravel, a specialist in China’s border and security issues at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that even if the military are reporting border crossings, an apparent incursion can sometimes be a matter of perception.
”What one side views as a patrol along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), another side views as a violation, and vice versa.”
Chinese experts say increasing tensions have been fuelled by Indian fears and nationalism rather than aggression from Beijing.
”I think that the immediate cause is that the Indian armed forces increased around the border, and this can easily increase the mutual suspicion,” said Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Beijing’s Renmin University.
Delhi has officially denied the reports of border violations, and like Beijing, has little to gain from friction.
”Our borders are secure and it serves no purpose to create excessive alarm,” said foreign minister S.M Krishna. With the two countries trading in everything from high-tech to steel, ties couldn’t be better, according to one expert.
”China-India relations are probably the best in 45 years,” said Siddharth Varadarajan, strategic affairs editor of The Hindu newspaper.
Some analysts say the news of incursions reflects leaks by an Indian military worried about the Chinese army’s growing mobility and strength in the border areas. India lags China both in terms of infrastructure work and military strength.
To counter this, India is raising two new army divisions, some 30,000 soldiers, for deployment in Arunachal Pradesh. It is also beefing up air defences in the region.
The Indian buildup of troops on the one hand and beefed-up border patrols and roads by China on the other may be creating a cycle of mistrust that could undermine years of diplomatic work.
”If you ask me what is the major problem between China and India, it is neither the border question, nor the Tibet question - it is the lack of mutual trust,” said former ambassador Cheng.