Indian and Chinese troops have locked horns again along their disputed border, Indian officials said Monday, in a sign that the deadly tensions that erupted in June between the world’s two most populous countries are not going away.
The Indian Army on Monday said it had over the weekend thwarted fresh attempts by Chinese soldiers to intrude into Indian territory along the Pangong Tso lake in Ladakh, exacerbating tensions that have been running high since May.
The spike in tensions seems to be the most serious since 15 June when 20 Indian Army personnel and an unknown number of Chinese troops were killed in a clash in the Galwan Valley area of eastern Ladakh. It is also worrying as this is a new area where the Chinese troops have tried to enter Indian territory, a move aimed at stoking tensions, according to analysts.
Ties between the two countries, riven by distrust, have frayed further after the intrusions, with both countries amassing troops along their common borders in Ladakh. The Indian Army is also maintaining a tight vigil across the entire 3,488km stretch of the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
China seems to be building a heliport in close proximity to two new air defence positions covering sensitive stretches of the LAC in Sikkim and along the India-China-Bhutan borders, according to satellite pictures posted on the internet by Open Source Intelligence.
Over the weekend, there was no clash between the two sides on the southern bank of the Pangong Tso lake. About 25 soldiers of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) tried to enter Indian territory on the banks of the lake in the Chushul area and were blocked by Indian soldiers, a person familiar with the matter said.
The Indian Army said that late Saturday, PLA soldiers “violated the previous consensus arrived at during military and diplomatic engagements during the ongoing standoff in eastern Ladakh and carried out provocative military movements to change the status quo”. The reference was to a consensus reached in a number of military and diplomatic talks to disengage and de-escalate since early May when the first intrusions into Indian territory came to light.
“Indian troops pre-empted this PLA activity on the southern bank of Pangong Tso Lake, undertook measures to strengthen our positions and thwart Chinese intentions to unilaterally change facts on ground,” the Army said.
“The Indian Army is committed to maintaining peace and tranquillity through dialogue, but is also equally determined to protect its territorial integrity. A brigade commander-level flag meeting is in progress at Chushul to resolve the issues,” it said.
Soon after, the Indian Army moved additional troops to the area given that some 100 Chinese soldiers were seen on their side of the LAC, said the person mentioned above.
Meanwhile, China on Monday accused India of undermining the consensus reached earlier. In a statement, the PLA’s Western Theatre Command said it was Indian troops who “violated the consensus reached at the multi-level talks between India and China and again crossed the LAC at the border on Monday and purposely launched provocations”.
“China strongly opposes the acts and urges India to immediately withdraw the troops that have illegally crossed the LAC,” the statement said.
The fresh tensions come as Indian foreign and defence ministers were to travel to Russia for meetings of the China-Russia dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organization with speculation rife over whether the two ministers would meet their Chinese counterparts.
In June, north of that area, the worst clash between the two nations in decades erupted. High up in the mountains, in the rocky and isolated Galwan Valley, hundreds of troops raged at each other with rocks, sticks, clubs and their bare fists. Indian officials said Chinese soldiers even used specially made iron clubs, with spikes welded to their tips, to inflict maximum damage.
China never specified its casualties, but Western intelligence officials have estimated that China probably lost around 20 soldiers as well.
For more than half a century, this border has been a sore spot. In 1962, the two Asian giants fought a brief war over this same lifeless land. China won and wrested away a chunk that India still claims.
Though the border has never been demarcated, the two sides eventually worked out protocols on how to patrol it, advising their soldiers not to shoot at each other. This kept the occasional border confrontation or dispute from turning deadly, up until the enormous brawl in June.
On Monday, the Indian media swung into action, running wall-to-wall television coverage and raising jingoistic feelings. Maps broadcast by Indian channels showed two lines cutting through Pangong Tso Lake — one to the east, which India believes is the border, and one that lies several miles to the west, which is what China claims.
“The Chinese are playing their usual game of surprise and deception,” said Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research. “They have opened a new front.”
Residents in Ladakh, which is a mountainous region historically connected to Tibet, said that Indian soldiers had shut down one of the area’s main highways — again — and that troop convoys were chugging up the windy roads on their way to the border.
Ladakhis have complained for years that Chinese troops have been steadily nibbling away at Indian territory, taking over high-altitude pasture land and blocking traditional herding routes, and that the Indian army knew about this and did nothing.
India’s military is less advanced than China’s, and India has been trying to walk a fine line, sounding tough but not striking back in Chinese territory or doing anything that might set off a major conflict against a superiorly armed foe.
“The military option to deal with transgressions by the Chinese Army in Ladakh is on, but it will be exercised only if talks at the military and the diplomatic level fail,” General Bipin Rawat, head of India’s military, said earlier this month.
Indian analysts said the Chinese were stepping up their campaign to change the facts on the ground around Pangong Tso Lake. Until recently, it was a major tourist attraction in India, with visitors flocking to the lake in the summer to admire the many shades of blue its cold waters reflected.
Now no tourists are allowed to come even close. Within the past few months, analysts said, the Chinese have built observation towers, fortified bunkers and two new marinas.
Bharat Karnad, an Indian national security expert, called China’s latest move “a probing action” that the Indians had successfully stalled.
“The Indian army has lost face in the encounters so far with the P.L.A.,” he said. “So it will be doubly determined to not take any more guff from the Chinese.”