In Himalayan arms race, China pips India

The tussle has all the appearance of an arms race on the roof of the world.

Asia's two great powers are facing off here in the eastern Himalayan mountains. China has vastly improved roads and is building or extending airports on its side of the border in Tibet. It has placed nuclear-capable intermediate missiles in the area and deployed around 300,000 troops across the Tibetan plateau, according to a 2010 Pentagon report.

India is in the midst of a 10-year plan to scale up its side. In the state of Arunachal Pradesh, new infantry patrols started on the frontier in May, as part of a surge to add some 60,000 men to the 120,000 already in the region. It has stationed two Sukhoi 30 fighter squadrons and will deploy the Brahmos cruise missile.

If they can increase their military strength there, then we can increase our military strength in our own land, Defence Minister A.K. Anthony told parliament recently.

Journalists on a rare journey through the state discovered, however, that India is lagging well behind China in building infrastructure in the area.

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 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.

India and China fought a brief frontier war here in 1962, and Chinese maps still show all of Arunachal Pradesh within China's borders. The continuing standoff will test whether these two Asian titans - each with more than a billion people, blossoming trade ties and ambitions as global powers - can rise peacefully together. With the United States courting India in its pivot to Asia, the stakes are all the higher.

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