3 Indian soldiers killed in border clash with China

The Indian army said Tuesday that three of its personnel were killed in a border skirmish with Chinese troops, the first deadly clash along the two Asian giants’ disputed frontier in nearly half a century.

The standoff in the remote Galwan River valley marked a significant and worrying turn in a weeks-long standoff along the 2,500-mile border, where thousands of troops from the two countries have been deployed over punishing Himalayan terrain.

The Indian army said that two soldiers and an officer were killed in “a violent face-off” and that the Chinese army had suffered casualties, too. It was not immediately clear how the three Indians died.

China blamed Indian troops for crossing the border in breach of a truce. India did not comment on what caused the confrontation, but signaled that it was trying to avoid further escalation with China’s much more powerful army.

“Senior military officials of the two sides are currently meeting at the venue to defuse the situation,” a statement from the Indian army said.

In Beijing, foreign affairs ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters that “Indian troops seriously violated the consensus of the two sides, crossed the border twice and carried out provocative attacks on Chinese personnel.”

It was the first time since an Indian patrol was ambushed by Chinese troops in 1975, in the mountainous Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, that a border clash between the two nuclear-armed nations had resulted in fatalities.

The violence also reflected China’s willingness — under the ever-more muscular leadership of President Xi Jinping — to defend or assert territorial claims while its regional neighbors are busy battling the coronavirus, which was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan last year and has spread around the world.

Claiming to have squashed the virus through draconian control measures, Beijing has denounced international efforts to investigate the origins of the outbreak and continued its aggressive naval buildup in the disputed South China Sea.

“China truly doesn’t want to have conflict with India, but is also unafraid of conflict with India,” Hu Xijin, editor of the nationalist tabloid Global Times, wrote Tuesday on Weibo, a Chinese social media site.

“Hope India remains self-aware and doesn’t forget the lessons of history. There are no possible benefits to themselves or to the region if they provoke more conflict at the China-India border. Hope they don’t seek further lessons from China,” Hu wrote.

According to Indian security analysts, Chinese troops crossed the border at several points hundreds of miles apart last month, brawling with Indian soldiers using rocks and clubs, and traversing rugged ground to penetrate at least two miles deep in some areas. The Chinese have fortified their positions with bunkers, trenches and roads, leading Indian officials to conclude that the People’s Liberation Army was attempting to redraw the boundary unilaterally.

Thousands of Chinese troops were sent to the area, backed by tanks and armored vehicles, prompting India to deploy large numbers of reinforcements.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has played down the tensions and said that a process of de-escalation was under way. Indian and Chinese commanders met several times in recent weeks, although neither side appeared to budge from its positions.

The trigger for the Chinese incursions appeared to be an increase in road construction by Indian forces. Chinese analysts said the road-building crossed into Chinese territory, which India denies.
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Han Hua, professor of international studies at Peking University, said India’s infrastructure buildup occurred without enough “constructive communication” to assuage China’s concerns.

“They are building roads, and they are building a lot,” Han said. “It’s hard to say if they’re on Chinese territory or not. It’s disputed. This conflict is not an accident — it was inevitable.”

A 2008 photo shows a Chinese soldier gesturing next to an Indian soldier at the Nathu La border crossing in India’s northeastern Sikkim state.

(Diptendu Dutta / AFP/Getty Images)

The disputed border, known as the Line of Actual Control, cuts through parts of Kashmir on the Indian side and Tibet on the Chinese side, and has been the site of mostly low-level skirmishes for decades.

Tensions had been simmering since 2017, when Indian troops blocked Chinese construction crews and border guards who were attempting to extend a road through territory claimed by the tiny kingdom of Bhutan. The result was a two-month standoff that ended after both sides agreed to withdraw their forces from the plateau.

Especially alarming to New Delhi was that Monday’s clash occurred in a valley — between Indian-administered Ladakh and the Chinese territory of Aksai Chin — that India believed was firmly in its possession.

An Indian army truck drives near Pangong Lake in India's Ladakh border region in 2018.

An Indian army truck drives near Pangong Lake in India’s Ladakh border region in 2018.

(Manish Swarup / Associated Press)

Chinese troops occupied the Galwan valley during a short border war in 1962, then handed the territory back to India. But last month, the Global Times described the Galwan valley region as “Chinese territory.”

An all-out conflict is seen as extremely unlikely, but Indian and Chinese analysts differ on whose actions are to blame for the flare-up in tensions.

Ajai Shukla, a former Indian army officer and a newspaper columnist, said the Chinese have stationed troops on surrounding hilltops, where they overlook a road leading to an important Indian airstrip.

Elsewhere along the border, the People’s Liberation Army has deployed artillery units and is building huts, suggesting it “is preparing for a long confrontation,” Shukla wrote in the Business Standard newspaper.

Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, said that, “under Xi, China is increasingly seeking to redraw its land and sea frontiers. … Its success in the South China Sea, where it has fundamentally changed the status quo without firing a shot, has emboldened its moves in the Himalayan borderlands.”

Chellaney said the lack of significant international pushback over China’s mass incarcerations of Muslim citizens in Xinjiang and crackdown in Hong Kong has also emboldened Beijing.

“As long as China pays no significant geopolitical price for its expansionist agenda,” he said, “it will continue on the present path.”

Chinese analysts portrayed India as the aggressor, drawing comparisons to Modi’s decision last year to revoke autonomy for Kashmir, the Muslim-majority border territory that is the center of a bitter dispute with Pakistan. Liu Zongyi, research fellow at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, said Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda uses “attack as a defense, not just toward Pakistan but also toward China.”

Chinese nationalism also makes it difficult for the People’s Liberation Army to withdraw, Liu said, arguing that China had already “given up too much” to Indian control in the border region. “We can’t pull back more,” he said.

Su reported from Beijing and Bengali from Singapore.