By Sarwar Kashani / New Delhi / India on Tuesday said at least 20 of its soldiers were killed during a violent face-off with Chinese troops near the Himalayan border in the high-altitude region of Ladakh, where the two countries have accused each other of trespass in a weeks-long boundary impasse.
The clash, which didn’t involve the use of arms and ammunition but iron rods and stones, took place during a de-escalation process in the Galwan Valley, one of the standoff points in the eastern Ladakh sector.
An official statement from the Indian Army said that the “violent face-off took place yesterday (Monday) night with casualties on both sides.”
Three soldiers, including a colonel rank officer, were killed on the spot while 17 others who were critically injured at the standoff location and exposed to sub-zero temperatures in the high-altitude terrain succumbed to their injuries later.
“Indian and Chinese troops have disengaged at the Galwan area where they had earlier clashed,” the statement said.
The deaths were the first in decades from a border dispute between the two regional rivals.
China blamed the Indian troops for the violence and called on New Delhi not to stir up trouble by taking any unilateral action in the disputed region.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters in Beijing that the two sides had a high-level meeting and reached an “important consensus on easing the border situation”.
“But astonishingly on June 15, the Indian troops seriously violated our consensus and twice crossed the borderline for illegal activities and provoked and attacked Chinese personnel which led to serious physical conflict between the two sides,” the spokesperson said.
“China has lodged strong protest and representation with the Indian side. We once again solemnly ask the Indian side to follow our consensus, strictly regulate its front-line troops and do not cross the line, do not stir up troubles, or make unilateral moves that may complicate matters.”
The Chinese spokesperson said the two sides “agree to resolve this issue through dialogue and consultation and make efforts for easing the situation and upholding the peace and security along the border area.”
India’s foreign ministry struck a conciliatory note, saying the government was “firmly convinced of the need for the maintenance of peace and tranquility in the border areas and the resolution of differences through dialogue.”
“At the same time, we are also strongly committed to ensuring India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said.
Srivastava returned the Chinese accusation, blaming it for the escalation.
“(The) violent face-off happened as a result of an attempt by the Chinese side to unilaterally change the status quo. Both sides suffered casualties that could have been avoided had the agreement at the higher level been scrupulously followed by the Chinese side,” he said.
The two nuclear-powered neighbors have been locked in a bitter border standoff simmering for weeks now after India allegedly started constructing roads and an airstrip in the disputed region, which is also claimed by Pakistan.
There have been reports of the two sides reinforcing their defenses on the de-facto border called the Line of Actual Control (LAC), raising fears about an extended standoff between the two countries that fought a brief border war in 1962.
The boundary line, not recognized as an international border, demarcates Indian-held and Chinese-held disputed territory of what was once part of the Tibet region.
The border dispute dates back to the 1962 war that ended in a truce with the two sides sticking to their claims along the mountainous 3,500 km (nearly 2,175 miles) border.
There have been several border face-offs between the two in the last six decades but almost all of them ended peacefully. The latest is the first that caused casualties after a 1975 clash along the LAC in the Tawang area of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, also claimed by China.
Mohan Guruswamy, a defense and strategic affairs expert, told EFE that the situation after the Monday clash could go out of control if not deescalated soon.
“Any soldier dying in a border clash is serious. But both sides are highlighting that there were no arms used and that suggests that it didn’t go out of control,” Guruswamy said.
He noted that the Galwan Valley was the only place where the Chinese side had accepted LAC demarcation as a hitherto undisputed area.
“Then there was some problem in their withdrawal. But three people dying and many more getting injured is serious. The passions are inflamed,” he said.
Guruswamy said that “some small misunderstanding” may have caused the violence.
“But wars are also caused by small misunderstandings. The two sides need to watch that things don’t go out of control. Passions are fueled on both sides. We have to see good sense prevails on both sides,” he said.
Indian and Chinese armies have been holding talks to end the standoff amid the raging conflict.
China has been insisting that India should stop construction near the de-facto border while India says it was building infrastructure on its side of the border and that China should withdraw its troops.
United States President Donald Trump last month offered to mediate the dispute between India and China.
“We have informed both India and China that the United States is ready, willing, and able to mediate or arbitrate their now raging border dispute,” Trump said in a Twitter post on May 27. (June 16, 2020, EFE/PracticaEspañol)