A clash between Indian and Chinese security forces in a disputed area of the Himalayan mountains has left at least 12 people dead and possibly dozens injured, reports said Tuesday, marking the first time soldiers have been killed in a confrontation between the two militaries in more than four decades.
Thousands of troops from the nuclear-armed neighbors have faced off since May along the unmarked border in the Galwan Valley, in India’s northeastern region of Ladakh, with Chinese troops rushing artillery and combat vehicles into the area after India was seen building a road nearby, according to Indian media reports.
While the two sides had pulled back ahead of a new round of talks aimed at reducing tensions, fighting broke out on Monday night at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) leaving at least 12 Indian soldiers dead, Reuters News Agency reported Tuesday, citing three Indian government sources. New Delhi Television (NDTV) reported that 20 Indian soldiers, including a colonel, had been killed.
Earlier, the Indian army had said in a statement that one of its officers and two soldiers were killed in a “violent faceoff” on the contested border with China.
Chief reporter at China’s official Global Times online newspaper, Wang Wenwen, cited reports in a tweet earlier on Tuesday that five People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers were killed and 11 injured in the clashes. However, the Global Times later tweeted that it had never reported the number of casualties on the Chinese side and was unable to confirm one.
Asian News International reported that China had suffered 43 casualties in the clash, “including dead and seriously injured,” citing sources with knowledge of Indian intercepts. It said India’s Ministry of External Affairs claimed the clash occurred “as a result of an attempt by the Chinese side to ‘unilaterally change’ the status quo during de-escalation” and could have been avoided “if the agreement at the higher level had been scrupulously followed” by Chinese forces.
Reuters quoted Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian as saying that India had “severely violated our consensus and twice crossed the border line and provoked and attacked the Chinese forces, causing a violent physical confrontation between the two border forces.”
An unsigned editorial in the Global Times on Tuesday warned India that while China “does not and will not create conflicts … it fears no conflicts either.” It said that China’s PLA and government “will firmly safeguard China's territorial integrity and maintain national interests when dealing with border conflicts.”
Reports said senior Chinese and Indian military officials are meeting to de-escalate the situation.
Risk of escalation
Tuesday’s clash marks the first time in more than four decades that soldiers had been killed in clashes between the two militaries. In 1975, four Indian soldiers were killed while on patrol in a border area.
While the two sides last week pulled troops back several miles from the LAC at three disputed border points, observers suggested that China might use Tuesday’s clash to undermine efforts to reduce tensions in the area.
“China’s aggression, and the killings, mark a turning point in Sino-Indian relations,” Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, told Reuters.
“The military fatalities in a confrontation underscores the risk of a larger military conflict.”
Daniel Russel, vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute (ASPI) in New York, said in a statement that China is “throwing punches and provoking its neighbors” at a time that Beijing should be focusing on the country’s economy.
“Instead, [Chinese president] Xi Jinping is making a conscious appeal to Chinese nationalism and appears to be calculating that China can handle the consequences of these actions.”
Coming for the ‘fingers’
Lobsang Sangay, head of the Dharamsala, India-based Tibetan government-in-exile, told CNN India Chinese incursions in the region bear striking similarities to Beijing’s occupation of Tibet in 1950.
“[China’s founder] Mao Zedong and other Chinese leaders said Tibet is the palm we must occupy, then go after [the] five fingers, and the first finger is Ladakh, [then] Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh,” he said.
“They have the palm, Tibet, now they are coming after [the] five fingers.”
Sangay said the Tibetan government-in-exile has been warning India for decades that “what happened to Tibet could happen to you,” and only recently have a growing number of people in the country begun to realize “the threat posed since [the] Indo-Tibet border became [the] Indo-China border.”
While India has a right to defend its territory and sovereignty, the head of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) advised that dialogue “is the only way to move forward.”
“They both should go together because the Chinese strategy has always been carrot and stick, similarly, India should respond the same way,” he said.
“But never be the first one to take action or intrude. In most of the cases, it’s the intrusion in the border areas are coming from the Chinese side.”
The current face-off in Ladakh is only the latest in a series of flare-ups along China’s and India’s 2,200-mile-long undemarcated border, or Line of Actual Control, with Indian soldiers using their fists to block an attempt by Chinese troops on May 9 to cross into Indian territory at the Nakula pass in northern Sikkim.
Meanwhile, in June 2017, India sent hundreds of troops into Bhutan to defend its ally against efforts by China to build a road southward into Doklam, an area claimed by both China and Bhutan. The stand-off continued for over two months and ended when both sides withdrew.
China and India fought a border war in 1962 that left hundreds killed or wounded on both sides.