The deadly clash between Indian and Chinese troops has officials from both sides blaming each other for the violence that erupted amid a seven-week long military stand-off at their
At least 20 Indian soldiers have died after a “violent face-off” with Chinese troops along the countries’ de facto border in the Himalayas late Monday, the Indian army announced. Indian media say there are 35 Chinese casualties but Beijing has not confirmed if any of its troops were killed or injured.
The incident occurred during a “de-escalation process” underway in the Galwan Valley in the disputed Aksai Chin-Ladakh area, where a large troop build-up has reportedly been taking place for weeks now on both sides of the border, before senior military commanders began talks earlier this month.
The current stand-off is reported to have been triggered by India’s construction of a road in the Galwan Valley, its latest project in years of infrastructure build-up by both sides in the border region.
On June 6, after a videoconference between diplomats, top generals from both sides
met in Chushul-Moldo, in the eastern part of Ladakh. Details of the four-hour discussion were few and far between but the comments made after that were reassuring. In the days that followed, the Indian establishment indicated through leaks to the media that troops from both sides would disengage in some areas while officials would continue talks to ease the situation.
The fighting occurred in the precipitous, rocky terrain of the Galwan Valley. Indian media say soldiers engaged in direct hand-to-hand combat, with some “beaten to death”. During the fight, one newspaper reported, others fell or were pushed into a river.
Indian forces appear to have been massively outnumbered by Chinese troops. A senior Indian military official told the BBC there were 55 Indians versus 300 Chinese, who he described as “the Death Squad”.
“They hit our boys on the head with metal batons wrapped in barbed wire. Our boys fought with bare hands,” the officer, who did not want to be named, said. His account, which could not be verified, tallies with other reports in the Indian media detailing the savagery of the combat.
The Indian army had earlier said three soldiers had died, but added on Tuesday that a further 17 troops “who were critically injured in the line of duty at the standoff location and exposed to sub-zero temperatures in the high altitude terrain have succumbed to their injuries.” The deaths are the first military casualties along the two countries’ disputed border for more than 45 years.
India’s Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said China tried to erect a structure inside Indian territory, while China’s Wang Yi said Indian troops attacked first. Senior military officials from both sides are currently meeting to defuse the situation, the statement added.
“India and China have been discussing through military and diplomatic channels the de-escalation of the situation in the border area in Eastern Ladakh,” said India’s External Affairs Ministry spokesman Anurag Srivastava on Tuesday. He said senior commanders had “agreed on a process for such de-escalation” during a “productive meeting” on Saturday, June 6, and ground commanders had met regarding the implementation.
“While it was our expectation that this would unfold smoothly, the Chinese side departed from the consensus to respect the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Galwan Valley,” he said in the statement.
“Both sides suffered casualties that could have been avoided had the agreement at the higher level been scrupulously followed by the Chinese side,” he added. “Given its responsible approach to border management, India is very clear that all its activities are always within the Indian side of the LAC. We expect the same of the Chinese side. We remain firmly convinced of the need for the maintenance of peace and tranquility in the border areas and the resolution of differences through dialogue. At the same time, we are also strongly committed to ensuring India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Earlier Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the Indian deaths “will not be in vain” and that India would be “proud that our soldiers died fighting the Chinese” in the clash in the Ladakh region on Monday.
Addressing the confrontation for the first time in a televised address on Wednesday, he said: “India wants peace but when provoked, India is capable of giving a fitting reply, be it any kind of situation.”
An Indian government statement following the phone conversation said that Chinese troops had tried to put up a structure on the Indian side of the de facto border, the Line of Actual Control (LAC), in the strategically important Galwan Valley.
It described this as “premeditated and planned action that was directly responsible for the resulting violence and casualties” and urged China to “take corrective steps”. The statement concluded that neither side would take action to escalate matters.
Meanwhile a Chinese statement quoted Mr Wang as saying: “China again expresses strong protest to India and demands the Indian side launches a thorough investigation… and stop all provocative actions to ensure the same things do not happen again. Both sides should resolve the dispute through dialogue, and keep the border safe and tranquil,” he added.
China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) released a statement Tuesday night calling on the Indian army to immediately stop what it described as “provocative actions” and to “resolve the issue through the correct track of dialogue and talks.”
“The sovereignty of the Galwan Valley region has always belonged to China,” Zhang Shuili, the spokesman of the Western Theater said in a statement on China’s Ministry of Defense website. “Indian troops violated its commitment, crossed the borderline for illegal activities and deliberately launched provocative attacks.” Zhang added that the “serious physical conflict between the two sides” had “resulted in casualties.”
The clash has provoked protests in India, with people burning Chinese flags. China has not confirmed how many of its personnel died or were injured. The BBC’s Robin Brant in Beijing says that China has never given contemporaneous confirmation on military deaths outside of peacekeeping duties.
This is not the first time the two nuclear-armed neighbors have fought without conventional firearms on the border. India and China have a history of face-offs and overlapping territorial claims along the more than 3,440km (2,100 mile), poorly drawn LAC separating the two sides.
The prime minister did say: “India wants peace but, if instigated, it is capable of giving a befitting reply.” But this is seen as aimed more at his political rivals and supporters domestically, rather than as a warning to Beijing. China is not Pakistan and memories of the humiliating defeat in the 1962 war are all too real for any misadventure.
How tense is the area?
The LAC is poorly demarcated. The presence of rivers, lakes and snowcaps means the line can shift. The soldiers either side – representing two of the world’s largest armies – come face-to-face at many points. Border patrols have often bumped into each other, resulting in occasional scuffles.
The two nuclear-armed neighbours have never agreed on the length of the border or how to demarcate it. The dispute dates back to when the British ruled India – a 1914 conference with the governments of Tibet and China set a boundary, known as the McMahon line, but this was never recognized by china. Beijing claims about 90,000 square kilometres of territory, comprising almost all of India’s Arunachal Pradesh state.
In 1959, when India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru went to Beijing, he questioned the boundaries shown on official Chinese maps, prompting Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai to reply that his government did not accept the colonial frontier.
In 1962, Chinese troops swarmed the disputed frontier with India during a row over the border’s demarcation. It sparked a four-week war that left thousands dead on the Indian side before China’s forces withdrew.
Beijing retained Aksai Chin, a strategic corridor linking Tibet to western China. India still claims the entire Aksai Chin region as its own, as well as the nearby China-controlled Shaksgam valley in northern Kashmir.
Another flashpoint has been Nathu La, a high mountain pass in India’s northeastern Sikkim state that is sandwiched between Bhutan, Chinese-ruled Tibet and Nepal.
During a series of clashes in 1967, which included the exchange of artillery fire, New Delhi said some 80 Indian soldiers died and counted up to 400 Chinese casualties.
In 1975, shots were reportedly fired across the official border at Tulung La in Arunachal Pradesh. Four Indian soldiers were ambushed and their deaths marked the last time anyone was known to have been killed in the long-running dispute until now. Then, Delhi blamed Beijing for crossing into Indian territory, a claim dismissed by China.
Three years ago, India and China had a months-long high-altitude stand-off in Bhutan’s
Doklam region after the Indian side sent troops to stop China constructing a road in the area.
The Doklam plateau is strategically significant as it gives China access to the so-called “chicken’s neck” – a thin strip of land connecting India’s northeastern states with the rest of the country.
It is claimed by both China and Bhutan, an ally of India. The issue was resolved after talks. In 2018, India said Chinese troops advanced around 300-400 metres inside the Demchok area and pitched five tents. Three were later removed after talks between the two armies.
The last firing on the border happened in 1975 when four Indian soldiers were killed in a remote pass in the north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh. The clash was variously described by former diplomats as an ambush and an accident. But no bullets have been fired since.
At the root of this is a 1996 bilateral agreement that says “neither side shall open fire… conduct blast operations or hunt with guns or explosives within two kilometres of the Line of Actual Control”.
But there have been tense confrontations along the border in recent weeks. In May Indian and Chinese soldiers exchanged physical blows on the border at Pangong Lake, also in Ladakh, and in the north-eastern Indian state of Sikkim hundreds of miles to the east.
India has accused China of sending thousands of troops into Ladakh’s Galwan Valley and says China occupies 38,000 sq km (14,700 sq miles) of its territory. Several rounds of talks in the last three decades have failed to resolve the boundary disputes. India also disputes part of Kashmir – an ethnically diverse Himalayan region covering about 140,000 sq km – with Pakistan.
There are several reasons why tensions are rising again now – but competing strategic goals lie at the root. The two countries have devoted extensive money and manpower to building roads, bridges, rail links and air fields along the disputed border.
Both India and China see each other’s construction efforts as calculated moves to gain a tactical advantage, and tensions often flare up when either announces a major project.
“We have not had casualties on the Line of Actual Control for at least 45 years,” said Happymon Jacob, an associate professor and political analyst at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. “This is perhaps a game-changer. This is perhaps the beginning of the end of the rapport that India has enjoyed with China for 45 years.”