Scores of Indian and Chinese soldiers were killed or fell to their deaths in a Himalayan clash Monday that marked a sudden and unexpected escalation of a long-running border dispute and the most violent encounter between the nuclear armed Asian rivals in decades.
Indian reports said at least 20 of its soldiers had died, and other accounts indicated that at least two dozen Chinese soldiers were killed during a melee in frozen conditions involving some 900 troops from both sides. Through late Tuesday, officials in Beijing had not confirmed any deaths.
Although high-altitude brawls have been breaking out for weeks as troops from the two sides massed in disputed territory off India’s northern tip, the latest clash marked the first time in decades that any soldiers were killed — sparking fears of a wider escalation between the world’s two most populous nations.
The battle erupted after weeks of assertions from both sides that they were trying to ease tensions and forge a diplomatic solution.
Combatants threw rocks and clashed with iron rods in a small, cliff-hanging area of the Western Himalayan Ladakh region. The two sides were holding to a negotiated ban on the use of firearms.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry accused Indian forces of carrying out “provocative attacks,” and Indian officials said the Chinese had reneged on a promise to vacate the area.
The United Nations quickly called on both sides to back down.
“We are concerned about reports of violence and deaths at [the border] between India and China,” U.N. representative Eri Kaneko said. “We take positive note of reports that the two countries have engaged to de-escalate the situation.”
A high-level regional source, speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of information emerging from the remote region, said it wasn’t clear as of Tuesday night “how many [soldiers] fell to death from both sides and how many died on land.”
U.S. officials gave no immediate comment, although the Trump administration has been watching the rising tensions closely. President Trump twice in recent weeks offered to mediate between the two Asian giants, but both of them brushed aside his overtures.
With U.S.-Chinese relations at a low point, some in China have accused Washington of trying to exploit the border clash and nurture a growing alliance with India as a way to check China’s regional ambitions.
Chinese state-controlled media have claimed that “Washington looks forward to the China-India dispute in order to gain from it.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo may raise the issue in closed-door talks Wednesday in Hawaii with Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi.
Despite the tensions, many regional analysts predicted that a major military escalation between China’s communist leaders and the world’s most populous democracy in India was unlikely. Some, though, told The Washington Times that the prospect of a widening or slow-burning clash is real.
The violence this week may be a “turning point” for New Delhi and Beijing to get serious about finding a permanent, peaceful solution to their border dispute and that “a military solution is not in the works,” one high-level source said.
Ashley J. Tellis, a senior fellow with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said as many as 43 Chinese soldiers were killed in addition to the 20 Indians.
“The real question going forward is the future of the Sino-Indian relationship,” said Mr. Tellis, adding that New Delhi and Beijing had managed their rivalry for years without the loss of life.
“What has happened in the last 24 hours changes this dynamic quite significantly, because lives have now been lost on both sides,” he said. “This suggests to me that Sino-Indian relations can never go back to the old norm. They will reset with greater competitiveness and in ways that neither country had actually intended at the beginning of this crisis.”
Relations between the nations have been generally stable but increasingly complex in recent years as China challenges America’s status as India’s top trading partner. India’s Hindu nationalist government also bristles at China’s rising military and economic clout. The Asian nations were once roughly economic equals, but China’s gross domestic product has grown to nearly five times the size of India’s.
The crisis centers on Chinese troop movements along an area of the Himalayan border that was the site of a bloody war with India in the early 1960s. The total length of the border, in many places never formally defined, is 2,100 miles. But the hot zone is not far from the disputed territory of Kashmir and the tense border with Pakistan, another nuclear-armed power.
Border tensions last soared between New Delhi and Beijing in 2017. More recently, analysts say, China has been eager to press its claims amid global geopolitical uncertainty and a COVID-19 pandemic that many in India blame on China.
Officials say hundreds of Chinese soldiers moved suddenly deep inside Indian-controlled territory in the Ladakh region’s Galwan Valley in early May and erected guard posts and tents. India responded quickly by massing troops and equipment in the area.
Indian officials say the Chinese have ignored repeated verbal warnings, triggering yelling matches, stone-throwing and fistfights in at least one place along Pangong Lake, which is above the 14,000-foot elevation mark.
Although the two sides have apparently adhered to a firearms ban, they have reportedly positioned tanks, armored personnel carriers and armed troops not far from each other in the Galwan Valley.
Tempers appeared to calm last week after high-level talks between the two sides, and Indian military officials said they and their Chinese counterparts had begun pulling back forces from a standoff in the valley.
Then came Monday night. Although neither side fired shots, Indian officials said, the clash was the first deadly confrontation between the two Asian giants since 1975.
The Indian army originally reported that three of its soldiers had died but later said 17 additional soldiers succumbed to injuries in the subzero temperatures.
An Indian army representative said the two sides subsequently “disengaged” from the site of the clash.
Vivek Katju, a retired Indian diplomat, told The Associated Press that the violence represented a dramatic departure from the 40-year tense but peaceful status quo. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Nardendra Modi must deal with strong nationalist feelings domestically that make compromise more difficult.
“The political class and the security class as a whole will have to do very serious thinking about the road ahead,” Mr. Katju said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian gave no details about casualties on the Chinese side. He said China strongly condemned the incident and was committed to maintaining “peace and tranquility” along the border.
“But what is shocking is that on June 15, the Indian troops seriously violated the consensus of the two sides, crossed the border illegally twice and carried out provocative attacks on Chinese personnel, resulting in serious physical conflicts between the two border forces,” Mr. Zhao said.
Lt. Gen. D.S. Hooda, a former head of the Indian military’s northern command, under which Kashmir and Ladakh fall, said the incident was the most serious confrontation between India and China since 1975, when Chinese troops killed four Indian soldiers in an ambush in the Twang region of northeastern India’s Arunachal Pradesh state.
“It’s a very complicated and serious situation, and it will take real, hard negotiating skills to resolve this,” Gen. Hooda said.
Michael Kugelman, a leading South Asia analyst with the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, said China has tried to drive a wedge between the U.S. and India and warned New Delhi about the costs of allying too closely with Washington.
“There’s something to be said for China trying to throw its weight around in India’s backyard, given how quickly the U.S.-India partnership has grown in recent years thanks in great part to shared opposition to China’s rise,” Mr. Kugelman told The Times in a recent interview. “Beijing understands this connection, and it clearly wants to make a strong statement addressed to both Indian and U.S. audiences.”
At the time, Mr. Kugelman said he did not expect a dramatic escalation of the border dispute. On Tuesday, he tweeted that “neither China nor India can afford a conflict. And one will presumably be avoided.”
“But let’s be clear: It beggars belief to think that they can magically de-escalate after a deadly exchange with such a high number of fatalities,” he said. “This crisis isn’t ending anytime soon.”
⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.