India’s Foreign Ministry has blamed China for the border clash that killed 20 of its soldiers on Monday, saying the People’s Liberation Army tried to unilaterally change the “status quo” at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) which serves as the two countries’ de facto border.
Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman Anurag Srivastava said Chinese forces departed from a “consensus” reached at a recent army commanders’ meeting to respect the LAC, and the casualties could have been avoided had the agreement been “scrupulously followed” by the Chinese side.
Srivastava underscored that India’s activities were within the Indian side of the LAC. “We expect the same of the Chinese side,” he said.
China accused Indian forces of carrying out “provocative attacks” on its troops and has not said if any of its soldiers have died.
The clash high in the Himalayas between the world’s two most populated countries is in the first deadly violence since the two nuclear-armed neighbours faced off in a border dispute 45 years ago.
The Indian and Chinese troops fought each other with fists and rocks, Indian authorities said on Tuesday.
The Indian army said in its statement that the two sides had “disengaged” from the disputed Galwan area.
The army originally reported that three Indian soldiers had died, but later said 17 additional soldiers succumbed to injuries they suffered in the sub-zero temperatures of the high-altitude terrain.
Thousands of soldiers on both sides have been facing off for over a month along a remote stretch of the 3380-kilometre Line of Actual Control, the border established following a war between India and China in 1962 that resulted in an uneasy truce.
The clash – during which neither side fired any shots, according to Indian officials – is the first deadly confrontation between the two Asian giants since 1975.
Vivek Katju, a retired Indian diplomat, said the clash was a dramatic departure from the four-decades-old status quo of troops from the two countries facing off without any fatalities.
“The political class and the security class as a whole will have to do very serious thinking about the road ahead,” he said.
Casualties ‘on both sides’
The Indian army said in a statement earlier on Tuesday that a “violent face-off” took place in Galwan Valley in the Ladakh region on Monday night, “with casualties on both sides”.
“The loss of lives on the Indian side includes an officer and two soldiers,” the statement said. “Senior military officials of the two sides are currently meeting at the venue to defuse the situation”.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian gave no details of any casualties on the Chinese side, but said that China had strongly protested the incident while still being committed to maintaining “peace and tranquillity” along the disputed and heavily militarised border.
“But what is shocking is that on June 15, the Indian troops seriously violated the consensus of the two sides, crossed the border illegally twice and carried out provocative attacks on Chinese personnel, resulting in serious physical conflicts between the two border forces,” Zhao said.
India’s Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement that the incident happened “as a result of an attempt by the Chinese side to unilaterally change the status quo” in the Galwan Valley.
Thousands of soldiers from the two countries, backed by armoured trucks and artillery, have been facing off just a few hundred meters apart for more than a month in the Ladakh region near Tibet. Army officers and diplomats have held a series of meetings to try to end the impasse, with no breakthrough.
‘No shots were fired’
Indian authorities have officially maintained near-total silence on the issues related to the confrontation, and it was not immediately clear how the Indian soldiers died.
But two Indian security officials familiar with latest developments said that soldiers from the two sides engaged in fistfights and stone-throwing, which led to the casualties. Both said that no shots were fired by either side. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with government regulations.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not comment on the clash in a televised meeting on Tuesday with state officials.
The tense stand-off started in early May, when Indian officials said that Chinese soldiers crossed the boundary in Ladakh at three different points, erecting tents and guard posts and ignoring verbal warnings to leave. That triggered shouting matches, stone-throwing and fistfights, much of it replayed on television news channels and social media.
China has sought to downplay the confrontation while saying the two sides were communicating through both their front-line military units and their respective embassies to resolve issues.
Though skirmishes aren’t new along the frontier, the stand-off at Ladakh’s Galwan Valley, where India is building a strategic road connecting the region to an airstrip close to China, has escalated in recent weeks.
India and China fought a border war in 1962 that also spilled into Ladakh. The two countries have been trying to settle their border dispute since the early 1990s without success.
Since then, soldiers from the two sides have frequently faced off along the frontier, which stretches from Ladakh in the north to the Indian state of Sikkim in the north-east.
Most serious confrontation since 1975
Lieutenant General D.S. Hooda, a former head of the Indian military’s Northern Command, under which Kashmir and Ladakh fall, said the incident was the “most serious confrontation” between India and China since 1975, when Chinese troops killed four Indian soldiers in an ambush in the Twang region of northeastern India’s Arunachal Pradesh state.
“It’s a very complicated and serious situation, and it will take real, hard negotiating skills to resolve this,” Hooda said.
Lieutenant General Vinod Bhatia, a former director-general of Indian military operations, said the incident was “serious but local”.
“Such incidents can happen, particularly when (opposing) soldiers are in such proximity,” he said.
The Indian army statement said the “violent face-off” occurred “during the de-escalation process underway in the Galwan Valley”.
Indian officials say Chinese soldiers commit more than 500 border transgressions annually. China claims about 90,000 square kilometres of territory in India’s north-east, while India says China occupies 38,000 square kilometres of its territory in the Aksai Chin Plateau in the Himalayas, a contiguous part of the Ladakh region.
India unilaterally declared Ladakh a federal territory while separating it from disputed Kashmir in August 2019. China was among the handful of countries to strongly condemn the move, raising it at international forums including the UN Security Council.