LEH, India -- In the brewing discord between two giant, ambitious nations, even a remote meadow in the Himalayas is worth fighting over.
Some two-dozen Chinese soldiers converged earlier this year on a family of nomads who wouldn't budge from a winter grazing ground that locals say Indian herders had used for generations. China claims the pasture is part of Tibet, not northern India. The soldiers tore up the family's tent and tried to push them back toward the Indian border town of Demchok, Indian authorities say.
Chering Dorjay, the chairman of India's Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, says he arrived on the scene with a new tent and Indian intelligence officers and urged the herders to stay put. "The Chinese, it seems, are gradually taking our territory," he says. "We will feel very insecure unless India strengthens its defenses."
Dueling territorial claims along this heavily militarized mountain border, coupled with economic tensions between the two nations, are kindling a 21st-century rivalry. The budding distrust has created a dilemma for the U.S. about how to court one nation without angering the other.
China and India cooperate occasionally. But in recent years, they have competed vigorously over trade, energy investments, even a race to land a man on the moon. Some Indians want their nation to move closer to the U.S. as a hedge against a rising China -- a strategic shift that's likely to complicate ties among all three.
"China is trying to become No. 1," says Brajesh Mishra, a former national-security adviser for India. "This is the seed of conflict between China, India and the U.S."
The prime ministers of India and China are expected to meet this weekend at a summit of Asian leaders in Bangkok, following several weeks in which their nations traded barbs over trade and disputed territory. "Both sides will exchange views on issues of mutual concern," China's assistant foreign minister, Hu Zhengyao, told reporters Wednesday.
Next month, after a planned visit to China, President Barack Obama will host a U.S. visit by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a meeting meant to highlight what the White House says is a "growing strategic partnership." Commercial and military ties between the two countries have been getting stronger. Last year, the U.S. loosened restrictions to allow India to buy sensitive technology and nuclear equipment for civilian use. Soldiers from both countries are participating this month in a joint defense exercise.
Indian defense analysts say India needs closer U.S. ties to hedge against potential hostilities with China. "If China's rise is peaceful, and it integrates into the global economy, everything should be fine," says retired Indian Brig. Gen. Gurmeet Kanwal, director of the Center for Land Warfare Studies, an army think tank. "Should China implode, it's better to have a friend like the U.S."
In addition to the defense concerns, trade friction is growing between India and China. India leads all members of the World Trade Organization in antidumping cases against China. India has banned imports of Chinese toys, milk and chocolate, citing safety concerns, and has launched investigations into export surges of Chinese truck tires and chemicals, among other products.
On Oct. 15, Indian heavy-industries minister Vilasrao Deshmukh asked the finance ministry to impose taxes on imports of inexpensive Chinese power equipment. "We don't want India to be turned into a dumping ground," he told reporters.
At the moment, the biggest threat to India-China relations may be their competing claims for big swaths of territory along their border. In recent years, China has settled border disputes with a host of nations, including Russia, as part of what it calls its "good neighbor policy." But China and India have made little progress, despite 13 rounds of meetings since 2003.
China says the eastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh is historically part of southern Tibet. India wants China to hand back territory it calls Aksai Chin, desolate high-altitude salt flats that residents of Ladakh claim as part of its ancient Buddhist kingdom. India's discovery of a Chinese-built road in the region helped spark a border war in 1962.
Earlier this month, China objected to a visit by Indian Prime Minister Singh to Arunachal Pradesh to campaign for local elections, saying it was disputed territory. "We request India to pay great attention to China's solemn concerns, and not stir up incidents in the areas of dispute," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu told reporters.
India's foreign minister countered that Arunachal Pradesh is Indian territory, and demanded that China stop investing in infrastructure-related projects in the Pakistan-controlled part of Kashmir. Both India and Pakistan claim the whole of Kashmir.
The 1962 border war, which India lost, complicated the boundary between the two countries. These days, Chinese and Indian forces in some border areas have agreed to go out on different days to patrol contested territory. "We want to avoid an eyeball-to-eyeball conflict," says Gopal Pillai, India's secretary for the home ministry, which oversees the border police.
India and China are intent on turning fast economic growth into national strength. When their interests have converged, they have proven a powerful combination. On Wednesday, they announced plans to cooperate at December's climate-change talks in Copenhagen, a pact likely to see both fighting carbon-emission caps proposed by industrialized nations. During global-trade talks, they both resisted Western pressure to open farm markets.
"China's economic and military growth is not a threat to India. And India's shouldn't be a threat to China," says Cheng Ruisheng, a former Chinese ambassador to India. "We should be an opportunity to one another."
But many Chinese resent any comparison with India, still a largely poor agrarian nation with only about one-third of China's per-capita income. And they're generally wary of India's warming ties with the U.S.
Indians, for their part, bristle over the flood of Chinese imports and China's increasingly cozy ties with India's neighbors, including Nepal, Sri Lanka and arch-rival Pakistan. In a speech last November, Indian Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, then its foreign minister, identified an expansionist China as one of India's top challenges. "Today's China seeks to further her interests more aggressively than in the past," he told the National Defense College in New Delhi.
The Indian government has closely scrutinized proposals by Chinese companies to invest in India. It recently demanded that thousands of Chinese citizens in India convert short-term business visas into employment visas -- a move that effectively boots unskilled Chinese workers from the country.
The Chinese government has objected to a proposed Asian Development Bank program that India hoped would help fund a water project in the disputed territory of Arunachal Pradesh. This year, the Chinese embassy began issuing visas to residents of Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir in a manner that Indian officials say leaves China with a way to later claim that it isn't recognizing the visa recipients as Indian citizens. A spokeswoman for the Chinese embassy in New Delhi says "every country has the right" to set its own visa policies.
U.S. defense contractors could benefit from India's desire to modernize its military. While the U.S. has banned weapons sales to China, it has ramped up such sales to India. Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co. are among the defense contractors competing to supply India's air force a new fleet of jet fighters -- a deal that could be valued at $10.4 billion.
Some Chinese analysts say friction between India and China are playing into what they say is a U.S. wish to contain China. "If border tensions between India and China continue to simmer, I can't say the U.S. will be displeased," says Shi Yinhong, a specialist in Sino-U.S. ties at People's University in Beijing.
The contested territory in northern India lies in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The region abutting China, known as Ladakh, consists largely of rocky mountain terrain with isolated green pastures grazed by yaks, goats and horses. Many of the herders and traders living on both sides of the blurred border share the same Tibetan heritage and Buddhist faith. The main town on the Indian side, Leh, was an ancient caravan stop.
Today, the area crawls with Indian soldiers. Indian border police tightly regulate visitors traveling east toward China.
The roads, which run beside Indian army camps and over a pass above 17,000 feet, are dotted with offbeat signs: "I'm curvaceous, be slow," warns one. "I like you darling, but not so fast," says another.
India intends to use the new mountain roads in part to move military supplies. In September, an Indian cargo plane landed at a new high-altitude airstrip near the border.
Indian villagers near the border have been caught in the middle of the conflict. When villagers were constructing an irrigation canal a few years ago, Chinese soldiers tried to wave them off, says Rigzin Spalbar, chairman at the time of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council.
The villagers hurled abuse at the soldiers, but were angry at Indian soldiers for doing nothing, he says. The Chinese "are pestering us to test India's reaction," he says.
Indian residents of the area claim Chinese soldiers have painted Chinese characters on rocks in territory that India claims as its own. The residents say the border has never been as tightly patrolled as it is now.
Konchok Gurmet, 70 years old, lives in Spangmik, a village ringed with Tibetan prayer flags on Panggong Lake, beside the border with China.
He says that until a few years ago he was able to smuggle horses and wool across the border in exchange for Chinese crockery, clothes and thermos bottles.
These days, locals say, border forces on both sides turn smugglers back. After violent protests in Tibet last year, China has been sensitive about who crosses over. Indian police worry that herders and smugglers may be offering the Chinese information on military positions and infrastructure projects, locals say.
According to Mr. Pillai, the Indian home secretary, infrastructure development on both sides of the border has heightened interest in establishing an exact line.
The confrontation between the Indian goatherds and Chinese soldiers, which occurred in January, began after the herders crossed a river to reach a pasture they'd used for generations, Mr. Pillai says.
The Chinese viewed the river as the border line. Indian security forces haven't pressed the claim, he says, because the pasture now is encircled by Chinese sentry posts. "We'd find it difficult tactically to hold that land," he says.
China's ministry of defense declined to comment on the incident, and the Chinese foreign ministry has denied any incursions into Indian territory. "China's border patrol is always conducted in strict accordance with rules," said a foreign ministry spokeswoman last month.
Mr. Pillai says more troops are moving to the border with China, which he describes as a "gradual" buildup of "defensive positions."
Some residents of Arunachal Pradesh -- the Indian state that China claims -- say it's about time.
"India needs to wake up. China is going to flex its muscles," says Kiren Rijiju, a former member of parliament from Arunachal Pradesh. "Being one of its largest neighbors, we are a soft target."