At least 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a “violent face-off” with Chinese forces along the disputed Himalayan frontier, in the deadliest clash between the nuclear-armed neighbors for more than four decades.
Brawls erupt regularly between the Asian giants across their disputed 3,500-kilometre frontier, but no-one has been killed since 1975. India and China have long squabbled about their border but recent weeks have seen an escalation.
The border introduced during the British colonial era remained undefined for over a decade, even after India gained independence and, during this period, the Chinese government built a road connecting Tibet and Xinjiang regions, carrying strategic importance for Beijing.
Both sides blamed each other for Monday’s clash in the precipitous, rocky terrain of the strategically important Galwan Valley, between China’s Tibet and India’s Ladakh region, which analysts described as “worrying.”
An Indian army source in the region told AFP the incident involved no shooting but “violent hand-to-hand scuffles.”
Indian troops “crossed the border line twice… provoking and attacking Chinese personnel, resulting in serious physical confrontation between border forces on the two sides,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Tuesday.
However, Indian sources and news reports suggested that Chinese troops remained in parts of the Galwan Valley and of the northern shore of the Pangong Tso lake that it occupied in recent weeks.
Indian sources say a colonel and 19 members of other ranks were sent unarmed to make sure the PLA was not violating the agreed line of control.
They were reportedly ambushed by Chinese soldiers brandishing iron rods, spiked clubs and rocks. At least 16 had injuries from blunt weapons and four were thrown from a cliff into the Galwan river.
On May 9, several Indian and Chinese soldiers were injured in a clash involving fists and stone-throwing at Naku La in India’s Sikkim state, which borders Bhutan, Nepal and China.
India and China have never even agreed on the length of their “Line of Actual Control” frontier, and each side uses different frontier proposals made by Britain to China in the 19th century to back their claims.
They fought a brief war in 1962 in which China took territory from India. Further deadly clashes followed in 1967, but the last shot fired in anger was in 1975, when four Indian soldiers were ambushed and killed along the dividing line in Arunachal Pradesh.
In 2017 there was a 72-day showdown after Chinese forces moved into the disputed Doklam plateau on the China-India-Bhutan border. After that India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese leader Xi Jinping appeared to ease tensions at two summits.
India has also been wary of a Chinese push to gain a strategic foothold in the Indian Ocean Region – one of the busiest maritime routes in the world – which it considers to be in its sphere of influence.
“If not handled correctly this can really escalate into something much bigger than we had initially imagined,” Harsh Pant from the Observer Research Foundation think-tank told AFP of the latest incident, calling China’s statement “worrying.”
“China, with its better infrastructure, with its better military capabilities, perhaps thinks that this is the time to push India, to see how far India will go.
Asia Times / ABC Flash Point News 2020.