The boundary disputes unsettling the peace of Asia don’t just involve tiny islands in the South China Sea. Himalayan glaciers and valleys are also involved — and it’s not just India and Pakistan who are at daggers drawn in the Asian high country.
India and China have never settled their disputed land border. They fought a war over it in 1962, but maps still show the entire province of Arunachal Pradesh as Chinese or Indian, depending on whose map it is. The standoff has resulted in a militarization of the border on both sides, but, if it ever came to blows, China is vastly better prepared.
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 [Indian] 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.
Things are far from calm in the Himalayan border regions between India and China. News outlets in both countries regularly broadcast warnings and scare stories about looming conflict. Both countries carry out high altitude military training exercises, usually carefully timed:
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. . . .
India’s defence minister told parliament 500 incursions have been reported in the last two years.
And yet, officials on both sides of the Himalayas dismiss the notion that the two nuclear-armed nations would go to war. Bilateral trade is booming, and both countries have more pressing security concerns elsewhere.
By all accounts, however, India is far outmatched by its northern neighbor, should war ever return to these mountains. On the Chinese side, hard-topped roads stretch from the border to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, where some of China’s most advanced aircraft are stationed. On the Indian side of the border, by contrast, high altitude roads are rutted tracks, frequently impassable because of landslides or snow. India has tried to compensate by dispatching troops to border outposts, but these remain marooned at the top of the world, only connected to support networks by a long, muddy track that takes two days to navigate to arrive in nearby Assam state.
One theme in India’s foreign policy: to improve access to its remote northeastern frontier. This involves efforts to deepen relations with Bangladesh to facilitate military transports across its territory; more recently, Indian involvement in building infrastructure in Burma would give Delhi another route to its far flung garrisons in the remote northeast.
Americans in the past haven’t paid much attention to these border disputes and their impact on Asian politics, but as Asia moves front and center on the world stage, issues like this are going to demand more of our national attention. India’s worries about Chinese pressure helped power India’s drive to get the bomb. The Indian bomb in turn set Pakistan a-building, with consequences that have yet to be fully felt. We will be hearing more from this part of the world as the Game of Thrones in Asia becomes more intense.