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."