Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The mystery of Huangyangtan

Deep inside China is an unusual man-made terrain of  what appears to an exact scale replica of China's disputed border region with India, a piece of land that led the countries into war in 1962 and which remains, to this day, in dispute.

"It's one of the most interesting things anyone's ever observed anywhere," says Tim Brown, a specialist in satellite imagery and a senior fellow at "It's obviously of the disputed border. It's oriented exactly."

It was initially discovered by a German who goes by the name KenGrok who had stumbled across the mysterious military facility in 2006. Speculation as to why it had been constructed quickly grew. According to one report in the Sydney Morning Herald, local authorities claimed the terrain as a tank training facility used for "putting tanks and their drivers through their paces."

But military specialists in the United States give this little credence. "Tanks aren't going to be driving through that," said Brown, who added that the facility is roughly 1:500 in scale. "That's guys walking along, looking at it -- it's just too small [for tanks]."

Taylor Fravel, an assistant professor of political science at MIT and part of its security studies program, agreed. "I'm sure it's not for armored training. It has multiple uses, some of which are not hostile."

"It's just sensible military planning," said John Pike, director and founder of "There are all kinds of things that would be peculiar about that type of terrain, and it would be enormously annoying to have to go out to the mountains. Better to bring the mountains to them."

"Militaries love terrain models," Brown concurred. "The Japanese had one before Pearl Harbor ... [and the Chinese] have full-scale airfields, oriented like Taiwanese airfields."

It it not known how long the facility, which lies some 900 km to the west of China's capital Beijing in a sparsely populated area in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, has been in existence. But many experts do not see it as an ominous sign that China intends to attack India. "China's view toward territorial disputes is diplomacy," said Adam Segal, a senior fellow in China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The existance of these scenarios is standard operating procedure," said Fravel. "[The border dispute] is not settled, but it's in a peaceful phase."

According to Noah Shachtman, editor of Defense Tech, the most important lesson to be taken from the discovery is how geo-spacial information is changing the way that people look at the world. "Average folks are finding really surprising things on Google Earth because it's accessible to the average Web surfer," Shachtman said. "It's closer to curiosity than military advantage." [ABC]

China has many areas along its borders, as well as several islands which remain under dispute. Many such disputes have a history stretching back many years and while some are well known others have faded from public consciousness.

Last year there were ugly scenes after Chinese fishermen were taken captive by the Japanese in waters surrounding the disputed Senkaku Islands, referred to by China as the Daioyu Islands.

Tensions still exist between Taiwan and China despite a building of better trade ties. China maintains that Taiwan is a part of its sovereign territory, though there are strong political factions on the island that seek total independence.

Issues surrounding the legitimacy over China's claim to Tibet and Xinjiang still create strong feelings, though China remains firmly in control across these regions. But as some have observed, China tends to play a waiting game and err towards diplomacy rather than force in order to achieve its goal of reclaiming territory.

In fact only recently China saw a small region of disputed land returned after more than 100 years. Tajikistan's parliament voted in agreement on Wednesday 12th January to hand over 1,000 square kilometres of land in the Central Asian nation's sparsely populated Pamir Mountains region. The dispute dates to the 19th Century, when Tajikistan was part of Czarist Russia.

There was no immediate information on how many people live in the territory to be ceded, though the decision was hailed as a victory by Foreign Minister Khamrokon Zarifi who said China had initially claimed more than 28,000 square kilometres. However, opposition leader Mukhiddin Kabiri said the land transfer was unconstitutional and represented a defeat for Tajik diplomacy [Washington Post].

India's land dispute with China may well last into the next century. Areas within the Aksai Chin are hotly contested by both nations and the region of Arunachal Pradesh is in particular dispute by the Chinese who claim it as their own.

To this day there remains what is known as a Line of Actual Control the effective border between India and China. The LAC is 4,057 km long and traverses three areas of northern Indian states: western (Ladakh, Kashmir), middle (Uttarakhand, Himachal) and eastern (Sikkim, Arunachal).

Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai first used the phrase in a letter addressed to Indian Prime Minister Nehru dated 24th October 1959. In a letter dated 7th November 1959 Zhou told Nehru that the LAC consisted of "the so-called McMahon Line in the east and the line up to which each side exercises actual control in the west". During the Sino-Indian War (1962), Nehru claimed not to know where the line was. "There is no sense or meaning in the Chinese offer to withdraw twenty kilometres from what they call 'line of actual control'. What is this 'line of control'? Is this the line they have created by aggression since the beginning of September? Advancing forty or sixty kilometers by blatant military aggression and offering to withdraw twenty kilometers provided both sides do this is a deceptive device which can fool nobody."

Zhou responded that the LAC was "basically still the line of actual control as existed between the Chinese and Indian sides on 7th November 1959. The term "LAC" gained legal recognition in Sino-Indian agreements signed in 1993 and 1996. The 1996 agreement states, "No activities of either side shall overstep the line of actual control." For China it is a waiting game. For India the border dispute remains a constant concern.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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