In Depth

High drama: India and China brawl in the Himalayas

Indian soldiers ‘beaten to death’ in first fatal clashes for 45 years

Soldiers from nuclear-armed China and India have fought hand-to-hand high up in the Himalayas, as a border dispute threatens the uneasy truce between the world’s most populous nations.

The clashes were the first to result in fatalities in the border area, in the disputed Kashmir region, in at least 45 years. Although smaller incidents are not uncommon, “we should be worried” about these latest skirmishes, says Foreign Policy.

“The theory that Sino-Indian clashes are flashes in the pan and unlikely to lead to more extensive fighting has become a widely held consensus,” the news site reports. “Recent events, however, suggest that escalations are highly possible.”

What happened in the latest incident?

At least 20 Indian and five Chinese soldiers were killed in hand-to-hand combat in the mountains, when the two sides clashed with iron sticks, bats and bamboo sticks studded with nails.

Indian media says some of its army’s soldiers were “beaten to death”, while others fell or were pushed into a river.

“Even unarmed men who fled into the hillsides were hunted down and killed,” one Indian officer told News 18. “The dead include men who jumped into the Galwan river in a desperate effort to escape.”

A senior Indian military official told the BBC there were 55 Indian soldiers versus 300 Chinese, whom he described as “the Death Squad”. “They hit our boys on the head with metal batons wrapped in barbed wire. Our boys fought with bare hands,” the officer said.

Each side has blamed each other for the clashes. India said China had tried to “unilaterally change the status quo”, while Beijing accused Indian troops of “attacking Chinese personnel”, reports the BBC.

Indian government sources say at least another two dozen soldiers are battling life-threatening injuries, and over 110 required treatment. “The toll will likely go up,” a military officer with knowledge of the issue told News 18.

A long, cold border war

As The Economist explains, “thanks in part to slapdash colonial cartography, the boundary between India and China is undefined”. 

The two sides fought a “brief but bloody border war in 1962, ending in a ceasefire that established the Line of Actual Control demarcating the boundary”, says Newsweek.

However, India and China “have different views about the exact location” of the de facto border they now patrol, adds The Economist.

As a result, their soldiers often encounter each other high in the Himalayas, on icy mountain passes that each regard as their own territory. “Sometimes stand-offs involve chest-bumping, pushing and shoving, and throwing stones at each other,” reports the BBC.

In 2017, a serious military clash appeared to be “a distinct possibility”, when the two armies squared up to each other across a remote mountain pass for 73 days, before “that particular crisis abated”, says Foreign Policy.

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Why now?

The latest dispute has been brewing for some time, as both China and India flex their muscles on the world stage.

“While Beijing has asserted its vast claims to the South China Sea,” says Newsweek, “New Delhi has consolidated control over semi-autonomous Kashmir”, changing the region’s legal status to bring it into line with other Indian states.

This move has “infuriated rival Pakistan and also angered China” - two antagonists of India that have close “economic, political and defence ties”, the magazine reports.

India, meanwhile, is “building strong strategic partnerships with China’s other rivals, especially the United States and Japan”, says Foreign Policy. “Beijing sees New Delhi as the principal impediment to the realisation of its ambitions to dominate Asia.”

Covid diplomacy

The coronavirus pandemic has also contributed to the renewed tensions, and drawn Nepal into the dispute between its two giant neighbours.

Nepalese Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli told his parliament this week it was “very difficult to contain Covid-19 due to the flow of people from outside”, adding that the “Indian virus looks more lethal than Chinese and Italian now”.

The same day, India accused Oli’s government of an “unjustified cartographic assertion” after it published a map laying claim to a patch of land that India considers its own. Without directly mentioning China, the head of the Indian army said Nepal might be acting “at the behest of someone else”.

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Uncertain future

Despite all the posturing in Beijing and New Delhi, “no bullet has been fired over the border in the last four decades”, says the BBC. And many observers believe both sides are willing to maintain their imperfect truce.

China said that the situation at the border was “stable and controllable”, The Times of India reports, while India has characterised the situation as “serious but not alarming”.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a statement after the clashes, warning China but leaving the door open for deescalation, says CNN.

“India wants peace, but if instigated, India at all costs is capable of giving an appropriate response,” Modi said.

In a phone call on Wednesday with his Indian counterpart, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi said that “India must not misjudge the current situation and must not underestimate China's firm will to safeguard territorial sovereignty”.

But the statement added that China and India had agreed to “cool down” the situation at the border.

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