Indo-China border quietest in years, say experts
China has signed land border treaties with 12 of its 14 neighbours, with most of the border disputes settled - and is currently negotiating with India and Bhutan to resolve boundary issues.
"China now shares the most peaceful borders with its neighbours since the republic was established in 1949," says Teng Jianqun, deputy secretary-general of the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association.
China's southwest boundary with India is friendlier than it ever was. From busy passes to lonely check posts high in the Himalayas, Chinese personnel are engaged in improving their relations with border guards on the Indian side.
China and India fought over the border in 1962 and the mutual hostility affected bilateral relations for decades until the end of the 20th Century.
The year 2000 marked the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and India, which helped to resume military ties.
In June 2006, the Nathu La pass, a century-old trading post that sits at 4,545 metres above sea level between Tibet in China and Sikkim in India, was reopened after being closed for 40 years.
Jin Guangyong, a soldier at a check post along the boundary, says Indian soldiers often shout "hello" to greet Chinese soldiers.
Isolated by snow for eight months a year, the two check posts separated by a canyon, are the only signs of human habitation, clinging to the black and bare mountain.
"I can feel their loneliness, since we also suffer. We respond to their greetings. Even the guard dogs bark at each other," Jin says.
But, Major Ai Huaichun remembers a fight when troops from the two sides confronted each other a decade ago.
"In the 1990s, meetings usually ended in arguments that solved nothing. The two parties would argue for hours whether a soldier had trespassed or not," says Ai, who served as an interpreter at joint meetings for 11 years.
"Now, border meetings have become more friendly. And the two sides reflect on progress of the Sino-Indian relations and plan for further exchanges," Ai said.
"Now, if problems like trespassing come to the table, both sides amicably try to settle the issue."
Regular meetings have resulted in the successful repatriation of soldiers who became lost and strayed over the border in 2003 and 2006.
"The meetings have enabled both sides to exchange information promptly and resolve problems, which helped to maintain peace and stability," says Colonel Zhang Weiguo, head of the Chinese delegation who participated at a meeting with the Indian border troops in May this year.
"A peaceful border is part of any promising relationship between two armies and two countries, and provides opportunities for increasing mutual respect and trust," says Jiang Yi, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS).
China saw three major military conflicts along its borders between 1950-70. "Since 1980s, no major border clashes occurred and troops have gradually expanded exchanges with each other," says Teng of the disarmament association.
He considers changes in the international environment, particularly the demise of the Cold War mentality, as a key factor in better border relations.
"The whole international understanding has changed since the end of the cold war. A country is no longer judged as a friend or an enemy vis-à-vis their political set up. This has helped China to rebuild relations with its neighbours," he says.
Thus, on the winding river of Heilongjiang on the northeast border with Russia, Chinese soldiers ride in blue patrol boats, passing Russian houses on the opposite bank so quickly that they soon appear like matchboxes.
There are no bridges on the Heilongjiang River and boats are used to cross the river. When the river is frozen in winter, vehicles can cross.
All this was unimaginable when relations between the two nations were strained.
"The border was once marked with barbed wire and dotted with blockhouses. Cannons were positioned against each other. The river was a forbidden zone, and any approaches could have seen a flare up in the bitter bilateral relations," says Col. Jia Lun, of the People's Liberation Army regiment, stationed in Mohe County on the southern bank.
This border is no longer a "sensitive" area, and sentry posts and lookout points are fewer, Jia says. Similar changes have taken place along the China's 22,000-km land border.
In 1996 and 1997, China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan signed agreements on disarmament and for building trust.
"These joint endeavours have improved security along the China's 7,000 km border with four countries," says a spokesman of China's Foreign Ministry.
The agreements also helped to lay the groundwork for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) founded in 2001, which has brought closer cooperation between the countries.
In Oct 2004, the two sides have signed an agreement for setting a deadline to complete the demarcation of the eastern boundary by the end of 2007.
Troops across the boundary have been organising joint news briefings, joint patrolling, get-togethers and even basketball matches.
"The meetings allow us to meet face to face, though we also have a direct telephone connection to communicate with each other," Song says.