At least 20 Indian soldiers have died, with more reportedly injured. Indian media say there are 35 Chinese casualties but Beijing has not confirmed if any of its troops were killed or injured.
The editor-in-chief of the hawkish Global Times Hu Xijin tweeted on Tuesday night that China was remaining silent on the numbers as an act of “goodwill” so that there would be no comparison of deaths that could inflame nationalist sentiments.
India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh was the first government minister on either side to address the issue in a statement on Wednesday afternoon, when he described the incident as “deeply disturbing and painful”.
“Our soldiers displayed exemplary courage and valour in the line of duty and sacrificed their lives in the highest traditions of the Indian Army. The nation will never forget their bravery and sacrifice,” he said.
The fatalities were the first in more than four decades from the simmering conflict along the 3,488-km undemarcated border known as the Line of Actual Control.
But many Indian observers said the latest stand-off was unusual, pointing to the size of the troop build-up by China, how they were massing in areas that had previously not been under dispute and the level of violence in brawls between soldiers – with one incident that took place in the Indian state of Sikkim on May 9 leaving several men injured.
Monday’s clash took place in the Galwan Valley, which India accused Chinese troops of entering even though it was not under dispute.
On Tuesday, a senior Chinese military official Zhang Shuili insisted the valley had “historically belonged” to China and said Indian troops had “violated the mutual consensus reached by both countries on border issues”.
Indian foreign ministry spokesman Anurag Srivastava said the incident arose from “an attempt by the Chinese side to unilaterally change the status quo” on the border.
Alongside a spike in domestic coronavirus cases and fears of a second wave of infections abroad, the clash has served to dampen Indian market sentiment, while dominating media headlines and fuelling anger on social media.
Official Chinese media have downplayed or ignored the incident in line with Beijing’s low-key response, but other outlets have reported extensively on Monday’s clash, leading to inflamed and nationalistic sentiments among Chinese netizens.
How did we get here?
The two nuclear-armed neighbours have never agreed on the length of the border or how to demarcate it. The dispute dates back to when the British ruled India – a 1914 conference with the governments of Tibet and China set a boundary, known as the McMahon line, but this has not been recognised by China since the time of the Qing Dynasty till now.
Beijing claims about 90,000 square kilometres of territory, comprising almost all of India’s Arunachal Pradesh State.
In 1959, when India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru went to Beijing, he questioned the boundaries shown on official Chinese maps, prompting Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai to reply that his government did not accept the colonial frontier.
In 1962, Chinese troops swarmed the disputed frontier with India during a row over the border’s demarcation. It sparked a four-week war that left thousands dead on the Indian side before China’s forces withdrew.
Beijing retained Aksai Chin, a strategic corridor linking Tibet to western China. India still claims the entire Aksai Chin region as its own, as well as the nearby China-controlled Shaksgam valley in northern Kashmir.
Another flashpoint has been Nathu La, a high mountain pass in India’s northeastern Sikkim state that is sandwiched between Bhutan, Chinese-ruled Tibet and Nepal.
During a series of clashes in 1967, which included the exchange of artillery fire, New Delhi said some 80 Indian soldiers died and counted up to 400 Chinese casualties.
In 1975, shots were reportedly fired across the official border at Tulung La in Arunachal Pradesh. Four Indian soldiers were ambushed and their deaths marked the last time anyone was known to have been killed in the long-running dispute until now. Then, Delhi blamed Beijing for crossing into Indian territory, a claim dismissed by China.
Three years ago, India and China had a months-long high-altitude stand-off in Bhutan’s
after the Indian side sent troops to stop China constructing a road in the area.
The Doklam plateau is strategically significant as it gives China access to the so-called “chicken’s neck” – a thin strip of land connecting India’s northeastern states with the rest of the country.
It is claimed by both China and Bhutan, an ally of India. The issue was resolved after talks. In 2018, India said Chinese troops advanced around 300-400 metres inside the Demchok area and pitched five tents. Three were later removed after talks between the two armies.
What has been done to ease tensions?
Since 1993, India and China have signed several bilateral agreements and held more than 20 rounds of border talks to maintain peace.
The current stand-off is thought to have been triggered by India’s construction of a road in the Galwan Valley, its latest project in years of infrastructure build-up by both sides in the border region.
On June 6, after a videoconference between diplomats, top generals from both sides
, in the eastern part of Ladakh. Details of the four-hour discussion were few and far between but the comments made after that were reassuring.
In the days that followed, the Indian establishment indicated through leaks to the media that troops from both sides would disengage in some areas while officials would continue talks to ease the situation.
Last week, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Beijing had reached a “positive consensus” with Delhi.
But respected former Indian Army colonel Ajai Shukla, in a piece for the Business Standard newspaper last weekend, said there was no indication that Chinese troops were withdrawing. He quoted sources saying that the Chinese military was strengthening its hold on “60-odd square kilometres of disputed territory that it has illegally occupied” and highlighted other areas along the border where Chinese tanks, armoured vehicles and bunkers had been spotted.