Zemithang, India: Freshly paved roads, bridges, upgraded military camps and new civilian infrastructure line the winding high Himalayan route to India̵7;s border village of Zemithang – which China renamed last month to press its claim to the region.
It is in the remote northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, almost all of which Beijing claims under its sovereignty as “South Tibet”.
The Asian giants fought a war in 1962 over their 3,500-kilometre (2,200 mi) split, which is now known as the Line of Actual Control, and it remains disputed today, with sporadic skirmishes and regular diplomatic manoeuvres.
Culturally largely Tibetan, Arunachal Pradesh is wild territory for fighting, with the mountain’s 4,750-metre (15,000 ft)-high passes still covered in snowdrifts as late as May, and densely forested slopes down.
Now both the powers are undertaking major construction campaigns to strengthen their position.
Beijing’s announcement in April to rename Gemithang – dubbed “Bangqin” – and 10 other sites infuriated New Delhi.
Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said that the state “is, is, and will always be an integral and inseparable part of India,” adding: “Attempts to assign invented names will not change this reality.”
Beijing has tried to forcefully change facts before.
Xemithang, a few kilometers from the border, and picture-postcard Tawang, the district’s main town – home to the largest and oldest Tibetan Buddhist monastery outside Lhasa – were both seized by the Chinese military in 1962 as they entered China. was given a humiliating defeat. Indian soldiers before retreating
The Indian Army officer charged with preventing recurrence is Brig. NM Bendigeri commands thousands of soldiers in Tawang.
Hundreds of his men clashed with Chinese forces in December.
And three years ago in Ladakh, on the western side of the border, 20 Indian and four Chinese soldiers were killed in a brutal face-off.
“The announcements from Beijing will not change anything here,” Bendigeri said.
But in reality, Chinese actions are profoundly changing the once neglected and remote region.
Worried about China’s build-up on the other side, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has invested billions of dollars in ambitious connectivity projects to boost civilian presence and set up new paramilitary battalions.
India has beefed up its defense by deploying cruise missiles, howitzers, US-made Chinook transport helicopters and drones.
At the same time, in a sign of New Delhi’s continuing geopolitical balancing act, India is part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which includes China and Russia.
As the current chair of the grouping, it holds its foreign ministers’ meeting in Goa on Fridays.
But in the face of China’s growing assertiveness under leader Xi Jinping, it has also become a member of the so-called Quad, along with the US, Australia and Japan, set up to counter Beijing.
Within days of Beijing announcing the renaming, India’s powerful interior minister Amit Shah launched a $585 million “living village” plan for civilians along the border.
“India wants peace with all,” Shah said in Kibithu, one of the first villages in Arunachal Pradesh, in 1962.
But no one will be able to occupy even an inch of land in our country.
New Delhi has expressed concern over pressure from its neighbor to develop “xiaokang” in Mandarin along the Line of Actual Control.
Bendigere fears they will be “dual-use ghost villages”, intended to replace realities on the ground.
They also worry that the People’s Liberation Army could use them during a conflict, similar to the way Beijing has built militarized artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea.
But India’s ability to respond is hampered by the fact that its military budget is a little more than a quarter of China’s, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
And New Delhi can only persuade rather than force citizens to live in those areas.
The Modi government said that last year it had approved 35 infrastructure schemes and 2,319 km of roads in the state.
Tenzin Dorje, a 35-year-old souvenir seller, says more tourists are flocking to his shop in Tawang, but it is still 12 hours away from the nearest airport.
“If the roads improve, everything gets better for us and for the people who want to come here,” he said.
The showpiece project is a tunnel under the Sela Pass, which Colonel Ravikant Tiwari of the Border Roads Organization said would be the world’s longest tunnel at an altitude of 4,000 metres.
It would provide “all-weather connectivity” and “boost strategic defense infrastructure” where snow storms regularly cut the existing road every winter, he said, with an army of workers working in freezing conditions.
Xemithang is where Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama entered India in 1959 after fleeing into exile.
The site of his crossing has become a pilgrimage site for his followers, who pass by the last army outpost in India and cross a rickety old bridge over a raging river to pray at a “sacred tree” which he allegedly Normally planted at that time.
A large Chinese military camp is visible on a slope about a kilometer ahead.
“The residents had a close relationship with the Tibetan people, but things changed after 1962,” said Sangi Seton, a 61-year-old local.
“We remember. We are not alike. We are Buddhists and they are Communists.”