BEIJING, JUNE 14 -- Indian Foreign Minister Narain Dutt Tiwari arrived today for talks with Chinese officials, amid suggestions by diplomats here that a military buildup on their tense border has left both sides prepared for battle.
Tensions between the two Asian giants have increased in recent months over their longstanding border dispute, which sparked a brief war in 1962. A western diplomat recently said there have been three incidents in the past six months in which warning shots were fired along the eastern sector of the border, east of Bhutan.
"When that happens, there is always the potential for fighting," he said, especially when there is a "huge amassing of forces on both sides." Some of the border posts are very close -- within several kilometers of each other, he said.
He declined to identify which side had fired the warning shots. There were no injuries and there was no return of fire, he said.
Chinese and Indian officials have repeatedly said no clashes have taken place. But earlier this month, Chinese Vice Premier Qiao Shi referred to "some cases" along the border that "were not created by China and they are not hoped for by China," according to the official New China News Agency. Qiao was thought to be referring to warning shot incidents, the diplomat said.
India and China have long disputed a border drawn by the British in 1914, after negotiations sponsored by British colonial officials with representatives of the then-governments of Tibet and China. The Chinese republican government then repudiated the decision of their negotiator, and subsequent governments in Beijing have never ratified the border treaty.
Some Asian diplomats have expressed suspicions that, alongside the historical dispute, India, which has good relations with the Soviet Union, may be seeking to slow a Soviet-Chinese rapprochement by keeping pressure on the border.
The focus of tension is about 25 square miles of land in what is now the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, where it abuts Tibet and Bhutan. It was in that desolate, mountainous area that skirmishes began in October 1962, leading to India's defeat in a brief war.
"There is definitely the possibility of skirmishing and I wouldn't rule out the possibility of war, either," said the western diplomat.
"Both sides are basically prepared," he said.
At the same time, the rhetoric on both sides has softened in the past two weeks, western and Asian diplomats noted. Leaders of both countries have made clear in recent public statements that they want to avoid another war.
Both sides are hoping that the visit of India's Tiwari will help ease tensions, western and Asian diplomats say. Tiwari, the first Indian foreign minister to visit China since 1979, arrived on his way home from a ministerial meeting of nonaligned countries in North Korea. He is scheduled to meet Monday with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Shuqing and acting Premier Wan Li before leaving Tuesday.
"The discussions are open-ended. We hope it will improve understanding," said an Indian diplomat.
Despite reports of increased military activity in and around the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, about 155 miles from the disputed border, Chinese officials have repeatedly denied any unusual troop movement.
But a western analyst said that in March, April and May there was an "alarming increase" in the pace of Chinese reinforcements into the eastern part of the border with India.
One press report late last month, citing western diplomatic sources, said Chinese troops in greater than division strength had been moving toward the eastern sector. A Chinese infantry division numbers between 9,000 and 13,000 men.
According to Indian officials in New Delhi, India now has at least 11 divisions in the northeastern part of the country, including paramilitary forces. Indian mountain divisions, which operate at heights above 5,000 feet, range from 10,000 to 15,000 men.
Late last month, the Indian Defense Ministry appointed its most senior expert on mountain combat, Lt. Gen. V.N. Sharma, as chief of the Indian Army's eastern command, in charge of the northeastern border region.
The western analyst in Beijing declined to provide an estimate of China's troop strength along the eastern sector, but he said the Chinese like to maintain a numerical edge of 3 to 1, and that in this case that edge could go as high as 9 to 1.
As a result of a series of tit-for-tat maneuvers that began last summer after a seventh round of border talks broke down, India has moved several border posts north of the line drawn by Britain.
According to a western diplomat, China is waiting for the Indians to move the posts out of the area. When U.S. officials raised the issue with Yang Shangkun, vice chairman of China's powerful Central Military Commission, during a recent visit to Washington, he made clear that if the posts were not removed, China would be forced to take action, the diplomat said.
China claims 56,000 square miles of territory, bordering Tibet in the eastern Himalayas, that India earlier this year declared to be its state of Arunachal Pradesh.
India claims the 36,000-square-mile region of Aksai Chin in the western Himalayas. The desolate plateau on the Chinese side of the Karakoram Mountains is of strategic importance to China as a link between Xinjiang and Tibet.
The Chinese position has been that India should recognize Chinese gains made in the 1962 war in the western sector in return for Chinese acceptance of the status quo, with minor adjustments, in the eastern sector.
India has refused to make concessions in the western sector, Asian diplomats said. Special correspondent Nilova Roy contributed to this report from New Delhi.