Friction between the two nuclear-armed Asian neighbours flared up again after each accused the other of trying to seize territory across their disputed Himalayan boundary.

Indian and Chinese troops have locked horns once again along their disputed Himalayan border, as tensions between the two nuclear-armed Asian neighbours show no signs of abating.

The military crisis in the remote region of eastern Ladakh entered a new phase over the weekend when the Indian army claimed it pushed back an attempt by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to alter the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between the two countries in a new area on the southern bank of Pangong Tso lake.

Indian officials and security observers said that Chinese troops landed a few days ago on the southern side of the lake, which traditionally has been considered Indian territory, in a move that New Delhi perceived as the latest example of aggression by Beijing to change the status quo.

Competing border claims laid by India and China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC)
Competing border claims laid by India and China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) (Zeyd Abdullah Alshagouri / TRTWorld)

Troops from both sides are reported to have yelled at and surged towards each other before de-escalating. No casualties have been reported, less than three months after the bloody brawl that erupted on June 15 in the Galwan Valley, when 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers were killed.

The Indian defence ministry on Monday said that the Chinese Army had “violated the previous consensus” and “carried out provocative military movements” on the intervening night of August 29 and 30.

It added that “Indian troops pre-empted this PLA activity…[and] undertook measures to strengthen our positions and thwart Chinese intentions to unilaterally change facts on ground.”

On Saturday evening, Indian officials alleged that 500 Chinese troops tried to cross into Spanggur, a narrow valley near the village of Chushul and three hours of hand-to-hand combat ensued.

The Telegraph quoted a source that said the attack was “repulsed” and “a retaliatory special operations battalion seized a Chinese camp” in the early hours of Monday morning.

Multiple reports suggested that the covert Special Frontier Force (SFF) unit, composed of Tibetan recruits and referred to as Vikas Battalion, was instrumental to the Indian offensive. The SFF is technically not part of the Indian Army but functions under its operational control.

A senior Indian government official told The Hindu that the scale of Chinese control of India’s perception of the LAC stands at about 900 square kilometres of territory in Ladakh. India claims that Chinese forces are occupying a considerable area from Finger 4 to 8 near Pangong Tso.

Till now the northern bank of Pangong Tso has been the subject of dispute, and India contends that China’s moves over the weekend on the lake’s southern bank represents an assertion of a new claim.

Pangong Tso is a long, thin body of water situated about 200 kilometres south of the Galwan Valley at a height of 4,350 metres in the Himalayas. Most of the lake lies in the Chinese region of Tibet, with the LAC passing through it.

China responds

Beijing has refuted New Delhi’s claims, denying that its troops ever crossed the LAC and accused the Indian Army of occupying its territory.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian claimed that “Chinese border troops always strictly abide by the LAC. They never cross the line.”

Spokesman for the PLA’s Western Theater Command, Senior Col. Zhang Shuili, went further by accusing the Indian military of “blatant provocation” and ruining the agreement the two sides had reached over the area by making illegal incursions.

“This action by the Indian side has seriously violated Chinese territorial sovereignty, and seriously damaged the peace and stability of the Chinese-Indian border region,” Zhang said, adding that India should immediately withdraw its forces.

On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that Beijing “will not be the first to complicate or escalate the situation” along the LAC, and because “the boundary between China and India has not yet been demarcated, there will always be problems of this kind.”

Ji Rong, spokesperson of the Chinese Embassy in India, said that India “conducted flagrant provocations” and “severely damaged peace and tranquility along the China-India border areas.”

Abhijnan Rej, an editor at The Diplomat, noted that the speed with which the Indian government issued an official statement around the latest saber-rattling over the border suggests “a newfound desire to seize and shape the narrative” after Chinese troops annexed 60 square kilometres of Indian territory in Ladakh in June.

“The early reactions to China’s threat to the LAC in eastern Ladakh were, first, to deny and then downplay. Indian equivocation – likely, part of a strategy to manage the domestic audience – allowed the PLA to consolidate its new claims, closing the window for prudent Indian military action.”

“New Delhi’s reaction to this latest round of activity in eastern Ladakh points to possibility of a much more proactive Indian military stance there,” Rej said.

Several rounds of diplomatic and military level talks had followed the deadly clash in Galwan Valley, and a partial disengagement commenced after Special Representatives Ajit Doval and Wang Yi, tasked with hammering out a solution to the dispute, spoke on July 5.

Though tensions eased in the months since, both sides maintain a large troop presence in the border region, raising the spectre of military confrontation over any potential miscalculation.

Saturday’s alleged incident is the latest in a long-running series of territorial flare-ups between the two sides. In 1962, India and China engaged in a border war that left thousands dead.

The recent standoff in Ladakh has been ongoing since early May.

In an interview last week, India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said that the latest border standoff is “the most serious situation after 1962” and that “the quantum of forces currently deployed by both sides at the LAC is unprecedented”.

Source: TRT World