- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 26, 2010

NEW DELHI | The theme of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India was “friends, not rivals,” but a border dispute remains a source of tension and, analysts warn, potential conflict between the Asian giants.

The joint communique that concluded Mr. Wen’s recent visit barely mentioned the long-standing border issue, as both sides sought to highlight areas of agreement with an ambitious plan to double trade to $100 billion by 2015.

The only reference was a vague pledge to try and “maintain peace and tranquility” in border areas and continue talks on the issue - already the subject of 14 rounds of fruitless negotiations.

“It will not be easy to resolve this; it requires patience,” was Mr. Wen’s only public comment.

The border dispute triggered a brief but bloody war in 1962 that proved to be a defining moment in modern Indo-Chinese relations and the basis for decades of mutual suspicion and mistrust that have yet to be be fully shed.

India says China is illegally occupying 15,000 square miles of its northwestern territory, while Beijing claims a 56,000-square-mile chunk of northeast India.

Perceptions that China is taking a harder line on its claims have prompted New Delhi to beef up its military presence along the frontier with thousands of extra combat troops, armor and expanded frontline air bases.

Siemon Wezeman of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute said issues of “national prestige” have always blocked efforts to resolve the dispute and warned that further militarization carried obvious dangers.

“While both sides make statements that the dispute should be solved peacefully, they also make prestige vis-a-vis each other more important,” Mr. Wezeman said.

“The border dispute remains a problem and, if reports are to be believed, little incidents happen frequently.

“With more troops and weapons poured into the region, such little incidents can grow bigger and get out of hand, potentially leading to the same type of short, nasty conflict as in 1962,” he warned.

A report by the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) this month reached a similar conclusion.

The IISS stressed that the likelihood of a full-scale conflict was “low” but added that the possibility of border skirmishes “cannot be ruled out and, in such an environment, there is plenty of scope for misunderstandings.”

The “prestige” issue was amply demonstrated last year when China complained bitterly over a visit by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the northeast Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which comprises much of the territory claimed by Beijing.

China said the visit, which came ahead of state elections in Arunachal, was provocative, while India insisted Mr. Singh was following “established democratic practice” by touring regions in the run-up to elections.

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