An official Communist Party newspaper said clashes occurred because India misjudged the Chinese army’s strength and willingness to respond. Indo-China border flare-ups follow New Delhi's unilateral action in disputed Kashmir in August 2019.

India's Border Security Force (BSF) soldiers stand guard at a checkpoint along a highway leading to Ladakh, at Gagangeer in Kashmir's Ganderbal district June 17, 2020.
India's Border Security Force (BSF) soldiers stand guard at a checkpoint along a highway leading to Ladakh, at Gagangeer in Kashmir's Ganderbal district June 17, 2020. (Reuters)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday called for an all-party meeting after 20 Indian soldiers were killed in border clashes with Chinese soldiers, local media reported soon after China appeared to show a willingness to de-escalate tensions.

Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters at a Wednesday briefing that “both sides agree to resolve this matter through dialogue and consultation and make efforts to eases the situation and safeguard peace and tranquillity in the border area.”

At least one officer and 19 soldiers were killed in a border clash in the Galwan Valley with Chinese troops on Monday night. 

India has impatiently awaited Prime Minister Narendra Modi's response to the deaths as the country's media vented its fury and political rivals goaded Modi over his silence.

Modi, in a Twitter message, called for an all-party meeting on Friday to discuss the situation, but did not make any other comment on the confrontation between the nuclear-armed neighbours.

Indian defence ministry spokesman Colonel Aman Anand did not respond immediately to queries on the situation on Wednesday or whether talks were planned to defuse the tensions.

China silent on casualties

In his press briefing, Zhao repeated Chinese claims that the clashes came after Indian forces “provoked and attacked Chinese personnel, which lead to fears, physical confrontation between the two sides' border troops and resulted in casualties.”

China has not said if any of its troops were injured or killed.

“China has lodged strong protests and stern representations with the Indian side. We once again ask the Indian side to act on our consensus, strictly discipline its front-line troops not to cross the line, not make provocations and not to take unilateral actions that might complicate the situation.” Zhao said.

The United Nations urged both sides “to exercise maximum restraint."

“We are concerned about reports of violence and deaths at the Line of Actual Control between India and China," UN associate spokesperson Eri Kaneko said. “We take positive note of reports that the two countries have engaged to de-escalate the situation."

India accuses China of violating border terms

As some commentators clamoured for revenge, Modi's government was silent Tuesday and most of Wednesday on the fallout from clashes.

India's foreign ministry on Tuesday accused Beijing of trying to change the status quo between the two countries in the eastern Ladakh region.

"Given its responsible approach to border management, India is very clear that all its activities are always within the Indian side of the LAC [Line of Actual Control].

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.

READ MORE: What’s behind the China-India border dispute?

We expect the same of the Chinese side," said ministry spokesman Anurag Srivastava, referring to the de facto border between the two countries .

He added that India and China had been discussing through military and diplomatic channels how to de-escalate the situation.

Hand-to-hand combat

An official Communist Party newspaper said the clash occurred because India misjudged the Chinese army’s strength and willingness to respond. 

The Global Times, which often reflects nationalistic views within the party's leadership, said China did not disclose whether it had casualties in the skirmish to avoid comparisons and prevent further escalation.

Indian security forces said neither side fired any shots in the clash in the Ladakh region late on Monday that was the first deadly confrontation on the disputed border between India and China since 1975.

The Indian Army said three soldiers died initially. The 17 others died after being "critically injured in the line of duty and exposed to sub-zero temperatures in the high-altitude terrain,” it said in a statement on Tuesday that did not disclose the nature of the soldiers’ injuries.

The troops fought each other with fists and rocks, Indian security officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to disclose the information.

After the clash, the two sides “disengaged” from the area where the fighting happened, the Indian Army statement said.

While experts said the two nations were unlikely to head into a war, they also believe easing tensions quickly will be difficult.

'Watershed moment'

“This will likely be a watershed moment in India-China relations and the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific," said Abraham Denmark, Asia programme director at The Wilson Center.

"We’ve already seen the deadliest clash on the China-India border in over 50 years, both countries are led by men who have embraced nationalism, and both countries are facing tremendous domestic and international upheaval as a result of Covid-19 and other long-standing problems.”

The main questions now are if either side can find a path to de-escalation and whether India's allies such as the United States will help. “It is a highly volatile and dangerous situation between two nationalistic, nuclear powers at a time when American influence has badly diminished,” Denmark said.

Chinese state media plays down

The editorial published in the Global Times on Wednesday said India’s reaction was largely due to encouragement from the US, China’s chief strategic rival which has been steadily building relations with India’s military.

“The arrogance and recklessness of the Indian side is the main reason for the consistent tensions along China-India borders,” the editorial said. China “does not and will not create conflicts, but it fears no conflicts either,” it said.

Meanwhile, state broadcaster CCTV and the Communist Party-owned People's Daily republished the Chinese military's official statement on social media, without any additional reports.

CCTV's widely watched daily Xinwen Lianbo evening news broadcast made no mention of the border confrontation on Tuesday.

The foreign ministry's official transcripts of its Tuesday press briefing redacted remarks from its spokesman about the clashes.

India's contested borders

China claims about 90,000 square kilometres of territory in India’s northeast, 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.

READ MORE: India’s division of Jammu and Kashmir angers China

Thousands of soldiers on both sides have faced off over a month along a remote stretch of the 3,380-kilometre Line of Actual Control, the border established following a war between India and China in 1962 that resulted in an uneasy truce.

The standoff 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.

Tensions 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.

READ MORE: India says 'negotiations on' with China amid flare-up on Kashmir frontier

The last fatalities along the disputed border was in 1975, when Chinese troops killed four Indian soldiers in an ambush in the Twang region of northeastern India’s Arunachal Pradesh state, said Lieutenant General DS Hooda, a former head of the Indian military’s Northern Command.

“It’s a very complicated and serious situation, and it will take real, hard negotiating skills to resolve this,” Hooda said.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies