Grim details of the clash that left at least 20 Indian soldiers dead near the Chinese border have begun to trickle out, revealing that soldiers used improvised weapons, including batons wrapped in barbed wire, during the high-altitude brawl.
Indian media reported that the battle was fought in darkness on a narrow ridge overlooking the Galwan Valley in the Himalayas – more than 14,000 feet above sea level – after Indian troops tried to verify that Chinese soldiers had honoured a pledge to withdraw from a strategic position.
Scuffles broke out and in the violent melee some Indian soldiers plunged from the ridge into the ravine below, according to Indian media. The clash involved hand-to-hand combat and improvised weapons because firearms are prohibited in the disputed zones under a protocol intended to prevent an inadvertent escalation of violence.
While Beijing has not confirmed any details of the confrontation, Indian media reported that the Chinese military also suffered many casualties.
Before Monday’s fight erupted, the two nuclear armed neighbours had been discussing a mutual disengagement from a weeks-long stand-off at multiple points along the disputed 3,488km border.
With tensions running high along the “line of actual control”, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi and his Indian counterpart S Jaishankar held phone talks on Wednesday aimed at preventing further violence.
The Chinese foreign ministry said both sides agreed to “cool down the situation,” while India’s foreign ministry said they had agreed “neither side would take any action to escalate matters”.
But Mr Jaishankar also accused Chinese troops of seeking to erect a structure in the valley “on our side of the line of actual control”, New Delhi said. China’s action “was directly responsible for the resulting violence and casualties,” he said, according to Indian officials.
Beijing reiterated its position that Indian troops had crossed into Chinese territory and “provoked” the clash. “India should not misjudge the current situation or underestimate China’s determination to safeguard territorial sovereignty,” Mr Wang said, according to China’s foreign ministry.
Tensions over the undemarcated border have simmered since China and India fought a fully fledged war in 1962. But despite occasional flare-ups – including violent brawls and confrontations between rival border patrols – the conflict has not led to any fatalities since 1975.
In his first public comments on the clash, Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, said the Indian soldiers would not die in vain. “India wants peace but if provoked it is capable of giving a befitting reply,” he said in a statement.
China’s reaction to the confrontation was restrained. State media ran only a brief military statement confirming that there had been casualties but providing no further details. Chinese social media reaction also remained muted.
However, the editor of a nationalist tabloid mocked India’s military on Twitter, after reports suggested that most of its fatalities died from exposure in the sub-zero temperatures rather than injuries from the fight.
“This is not an army with real modern combat capabilities at [altitude] . Indian public opinion needs to stay sober,” said Hu Xijin at the Global Times.
But Indian public anger towards China was mounting on Wednesday, with protests outside Beijing’s embassy in New Delhi. Indian social media also reverberated with calls for a boycott of Chinese goods.
Bilahari Kausikan, a former diplomat now at the National University of Singapore, said such sentiments could make it difficult for Mr Modi and Chinese president Xi Jinping to rein in tempers.
“Both Modi and Xi have used nationalist narratives, so even if they want to de-escalate public sentiment could make that difficult,” Mr Kausikan said.
“Neither of them is looking for more trouble but it will depend on whether they can contain social media reaction.”
Since taking power in 2014, Mr Modi has tried to forge an amicable working relationship with Mr Xi. Some analysts, however, say Beijing has been irked by New Delhi’s warm ties with US president Donald Trump.
Wang Dehua, South Asia expert at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, said Beijing was not looking for a fight. “China’s principle is: if we are invaded we will hit back and our military is stronger than India’s,” he said. “But China does not want a war.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020