A soldier guards military installation in Tawang. This Indian town with its historic monastery is in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which has long been disputed territory and that China claims as "South Tibet." (Annie Gowen/The Washington Post)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had come to his country’s most remote state, an unspoiled place of indigenous tribes and rain forests, to open its first railway station and boast of new development.

But his appearance in February set off a firestorm in China, which still considers much of India’s northeast state of Arunachal Pradesh its own — the Chinese call it “South Tibet.” Officials quickly lodged a protest, sniping that India’s “insistence on arranging activities by leaders in the disputed region” infringes on their “territorial sovereignty.”

As Modi arrived in China on Thursday for a visit with President Xi Jinping, the unresolved matter of Arunachal Pradesh remains a flash point between the world’s most populous countries, which have massed thousands of troops, sophisticated weaponry and aircraft along a 2,520-mile border, long stretches of which remain in dispute.

No shots have been fired there for years, but incursions over the line by troops on both sides have flared into diplomatic incidents and have the potential to escalate, experts say. A Pentagon report to Congress noted this year that despite increasing political and economic relations between India and China, “tensions remain” along the shared border, particularly in disputed areas in Arunachal Pradesh and the Ladakh region in the west, where the two sides “continue to accuse each other of frequent incursions and military build-ups.”

Analysts say Modi has tried to strike a balance by reaching out to China on economic issues such as trade while taking a strong
stance against its expansionism throughout Asia. The two sides have clashed in recent days, with India protesting China’s investment in Pakistan’s Kashmir region and a widely read opinion piece in a Chinese state newspaper accusing Modi of playing “little tricks over border disputes and security” and warning him to stay away from border areas.

And now, the Modi government may prompt ire with wide-ranging plans to shore up the border in Arunachal. Those include a proposal to double the number of border police officers and an ambitious — some say unrealistic — project to build a $6 billion road to run along the steep Himalayas from west to east. Indian authorities are also trying to stem the flood of villagers migrating to big cities from the border by hastening smaller road projects already underway, planning for solar generating stations for those still without electricity and even handing out free bags of rice.

Kiren Rijiju, minister of state for home affairs, who is from Arunachal Pradesh, said that for years the government has neglected the border areas, which has led to migration from smaller villages to larger towns and thinned the border population.

“We’re going to reverse that,” Rijiju said. “Of course, it definitely has strategic ramification. If you don’t develop your border areas, how will your border be secure?”

An exclusive paradise

For most of its 28 years as an Indian state, Arunachal Pradesh — like most of India’s Northeast region — has been relatively cut off from the rest of the country. Sparsely populated, it is an ecological paradise of orchids, bamboo forests and soaring mountain ranges, inhabited by dozens of indigenous tribes.

There is no airport, so visitors arrive on a helicopter flight often canceled for bad weather or to make way for VIPs. Nearly half the population still does not have cellphone service.

Indians and foreign tourists must have special permits to visit. Only about 10,000 foreigners managed to make the trip last year, a fraction of the 7 million people who visited India as a whole. Permission for foreign journalists is even more difficult to obtain. The region’s unique status is part of its charm, locals say.

“There is a romantic aspect of Arunachal that has made it a mystical destination,” said Nalong Mize, an activist and former state adviser.

Resident Wangdan, 75, of Arunachal Pradesh, still remembers the Chinese invasion of 1962. (Annie Gowen/The Washington Post)

That’s certainly true for the thousands of pilgrims who flock each year to the Tawang Monastery, a holy site for Tibetan Buddhists. The 17th-century compound of white buildings and fluttering prayer flags sits about 20 miles from the desolate India-
China border.

It was here that the current Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of millions of Tibetan Buddhists, stopped to rest after he fled Tibet on foot over the Himalayas in 1959 because of Chinese repression, seeking refuge in India.

The status of Tawang has exacerbated the long-running dispute between the two countries, experts say. China has never accepted the McMahon boundary line drawn in 1914 that essentially placed Tawang in territory controlled by the British Raj. India, for its part, rejects China’s claim to a slice of the high Tibetan plateau several hundred miles to the west called Aksai Chin.

Modi has promised more development in the next five years than at any time since the state’s creation in 1987, and he urged locals to support projects for hydroelectric power plants. The state’s free-flowing Himalayan rivers hold a third of the country’s hydroelectric potential, but fears by locals about deforestation and land grabs have slowed progress. Only one of the 160 proposed dams is up and running.

Two-thirds of the state’s population of 1.4 million come from indigenous tribes, which maintain their own traditions and, in some cases, are distrustful of outsiders. Even the opening of the state’s first major railway line this year — linking the capital, Itanagar, with New Delhi and Guwahati — was met with ambivalence.

“It’s good, but it’s also bad,” said Yowa Pana, 26, a member of a tribal community with a master’s degree in economics. “It will be easier to reach Delhi and for commercial purposes. But it’s bad, because so many foreigners are going to be coming in. And by ‘foreigners,’ I mean people coming from outside Arunachal Pradesh. We’re concerned they will bring in viruses and criminal activity.”

Yet he conceded that the state has little economic opportunity and that he has had difficulty finding a job. He has thought of becoming a cardamom farmer.

Arunachal’s forbidding territory has made it difficult to complete a network of roads to rival the massive buildup by China on the Tibet side of the border, with smooth highways and miles of railway lines. China far outspends India on overall defense — some $136 billion to $38 billion, according to the Pentagon assessment.

Indian soldiers still have to reach their remote camps by foot or mule, and the road trip to Tawang from the capital takes two days. Locals complain that upgrade work hasn’t been done properly, citing one bridge routinely engulfed in landslides.

India, however, has its 120,000 regular army troops stationed much closer to the border than the estimated 90,000 regular army soldiers in the Tibetan military regions, according to Ashley J. Tellis, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The Indian soldiers also train for mountain warfare more than the Chinese and have deployed greater air power, Tellis said.

‘We didn’t fear them’

Tawang itself has the feel of an occupied city, with green barracks dotting the hillside and soldiers in fatigues mingling with monks in maroon robes in the bustling market square. Near Tawang, at altitudes higher than the clouds, yak herders and villagers gathering firewood fight for space alongside heavy military trucks on winding roads. Many of the residents still remember the short war between the neighboring countries in 1962, when the Chinese briefly occupied the area.

“The Chinese marched from this place — very happily,” recalled a 70-year-old villager, Wangdan, who uses only one name. “But we didn’t fear them.”

But other villagers say they give little thought to the geopolitical dance between the two nuclear-armed nations just miles from their simple homes. They’re far more interested in plans for schools, solar power stations and the new rice giveaway.

Officials hope these new programs will stem the migration from border villages, where the population has dropped 10 to 15 percent in recent years, according to K.C. Dhimole, a technical adviser to the state.

“We are not talking about China,” said Tsering Yangchin, 30, a farmer who cultivates a small plot of fiddlehead ferns and other vegetables. “We are just worrying about our livelihoods.”

Gu Jinglu and Liu Liu in Beijing contributed to this report.

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world