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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?"
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.