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 reportedly 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.

“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 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 novel 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 last month, traversing rugged ground to penetrate at least two miles deep in some areas. The Chinese troops refused to move, leading some military officials in New Delhi to conclude that the People’s Liberation Army was attempting to redraw the boundary unilaterally.

Analysts said the trigger for the Chinese incursions appeared to be an increase in road construction by Indian forces on their side of the border, which could help India resupply its forces. Indian media accounts said that thousands of Chinese troops were sent to the area last month, although most were in rearguard positions.

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.

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)

In 2017, 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.

Since last month, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, which was struggling to contain one of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreaks, played down the tensions and said that a process of de-escalation was under way.

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.

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.”

Some analysts believed that China’s growing military might had encouraged Beijing to take risks even against large neighbors such as India, a fellow nuclear power.

“Under Xi, China is increasingly seeking to redraw its land and sea frontiers,” said Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. “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 that China has been emboldened by its mass incarcerations of Muslim citizens in Xinjiang and its crackdown in Hong Kong, for which Beijing has faced little significant pushback internationally.

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

Su reported from Beijing and Bengali from Singapore.