Yesterday, Chinese and Indian soldiers attacked each other with stones, iron rods, and bamboo poles wrapped in barbed wire laced with nails. It is not clear what started the clashes, but by the time they were finished, 20 Indian soldiers were dead, along with an unknown number of Chinese casualties. (US News claims 35 casualties)
The violence broke out Monday afternoon and went on until midnight on the Tibetan plateau along the freezing Galwan river, Indian officials said, asking not to be identified citing rules on speaking to the media. It’s the first time in 45 years that a military skirmish along the contested Himalayan border had turned deadly, and it signaled a sharp deterioration in ties between the two regional giants.
In talks between senior military personnel to defuse a border standoff that’s been brewing for over a month, the two sides had agreed to create a buffer zone between the armies, Indian officials with knowledge of the matter said. Troops were to withdraw by a kilometer each to create an area that would separate the forces and ensure peace. Indian troops came under attack after they objected to Chinese troops’ construction of a fresh post in the buffer zone, the officials said.
The Indian Army spokesman was not immediately available for comment, while Zhang Shuili, a military spokesperson in China’s western battle zone command, said in a statement late Tuesday that there were casualties on both sides, without elaborating.
The uptick in tensions comes amid a rising din of nationalism stoked by both governments as the two powers jostle for regional influence. A further escalation could cast a shadow over a tripartite meeting planned with Russia this month.
It’s not in either country’s interests to be locked into a bloody border conflict, said Anit Mukherjee, assistant professor in the South Asia program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
“This standoff — with a loss of lives — is a very serious development,” Mukherjee said. “In the days ahead, as the funerals of the fallen play out in public, it will lead to an emotional call for some sort of a response.”
At a regular press briefing in Beijing Tuesday, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian warned India against making any unilateral move that could complicate the situation. A statement released by India said military leaders at the border were trying to negotiate a solution.
In a statement late Tuesday evening, India tried to defuse the situation and said it remained committed to peace on the border with China. The clash followed an attempt by the Chinese to alter the status quo in violation of de-escalation terms agreed to in recent talks, it added.
Modi’s leadership will be tested as he manages the twin crises of a surging coronavirus epidemic and an economy that’s set for its first annual contraction in more than four decades this year.