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The Deadly India-China Clash: Spiked Clubs and Fists at 14,000 Feet

Thursday 18th June 2020

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NEW DELHI—For hours into the night on Monday, Indian and Chinese forces fought with fists, rocks, batons and clubs wrapped in barbed wire at an altitude of more than 14,000 feet in a remote part of the Himalayan mountains. In the melee, some soldiers fell off cliffs into a river, Indian security officials said. At least 20 Indian troops died.

India said there were also Chinese casualties in the clash, the deadliest along the countries’ disputed border in more than five decades.

China’s government didn’t say whether any of its people had been killed or wounded. On Wednesday, both sides blamed the other for starting the fight. 

India’s foreign ministry said China “took premeditated and planned action that was directly responsible for the resulting violence and casualties.” In a televised message, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said: “India wants peace, but when instigated, India is capable of giving a befitting reply.”

China said Indian troops crossed the Line of Actual Control—the loosely defined de facto border—and attacked Chinese soldiers. Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned India not to underestimate that China’s “resolute will to safeguard its territorial sovereignty,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said. 

The violence started Monday evening after an Indian detachment arrived in an area of the disputed Galwan Valley to make sure Chinese forces had decamped as part of an agreement struck between the two sides earlier this month, Indian officials said. 

Instead, the Indians found Chinese soldiers were still there and had begun building a new structure on what India considers as its side of the de facto boundary.

This account of events Monday comes from Indian officials; Chinese officials didn’t provide details, other than to confirm that the skirmish resulted in injuries and deaths. China’s Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to questions about the Indian account.

After finding the Chinese soldiers still in the area they had agreed to vacate, the Indians asked them to leave, sparking an argument. The Chinese group moved away, but returned shortly afterward with hundreds more soldiers.

More Indian soldiers arrived and clashes erupted near what troops refer to as Patrolling Point 14. Protocols agreed to by both sides have restricted the use of guns in confrontations to prevent clashes from turning deadly.

The Chinese pelted the Indian soldiers with stones and beat them with clubs embedded with nails and wrapped in barbed wire. Indians retaliated with iron rods and batons.

The fight went on for over four hours in the dark. In the frenzy, a number of Indian and Chinese soldiers fell or were pushed into the Galwan river, the Indian officials said. As many as 17 Indian troops may have died of exposure in the high-altitude weather after being injured in the fighting, the officials said.

The two sides disengaged late in the night, bloody and battered, according to Indian officials.

Skirmishes along the Line of Actual Control aren’t uncommon. The boundary has separated India and China since a 1962 border war, and its exact location remains a subject of dispute. 

Scuffles typically involve patrols from the two sides shoving each other when they meet in disputed areas. Before Monday, no fatalities had occurred since 1975.

Tensions had been high in recent weeks at different points along the boundary, leading to the June 6 de-escalation agreement, which Indian officials said called on China to move back its troops from the Galwan Valley area and dismantle structures they had built there. The two sides had made some progress before Monday’s clash.

Chinese authorities said Indian troops provoked the clash and violated agreements on managing border tensions. Snr. Col. Zhang Shuili, a spokesman for the Chinese military’s Western Theater Command, said Tuesday that China has always maintained sovereignty over the Galwan Valley.

The incident has dominated news coverage in India and puts pressure on Mr. Modi to push back harder against Beijing.

Discord between the two nuclear-armed neighbors has grown as China has become more powerful. The clash could drive India closer to the U.S. and other Asian countries that are challenging Beijing’s increasing assertiveness, some experts said.

Chinese state media has given the clash relatively low-key coverage, primarily featuring reports on official statements. China Central Television omitted the incident from its flagship evening newscasts on Tuesday and Wednesday.

An exception was the nationalistic Communist Party tabloid, Global Times, which published an editorial Wednesday in Chinese and English that blamed “the arrogance and recklessness of the Indian side” as the main reason for border tensions.

Its editor in chief, Hu Xijin, also took a swipe at the Indian military, tweeting that reports of Indian soldiers dying from injuries due to slow rescue efforts indicated that the Indian army has “serious flaws“ and lacks “real modern combat capabilities” at high altitude.

Separately on Wednesday, state broadcaster CCTV aired footage from a recent Chinese military live-firing exercise along a Tibetan mountain range 4,700 meters above sea level. The drill featured tanks, artillery, helicopters and infantry in a test of their high-altitude combat capabilities, CCTV said.

The report stirred nationalistic responses on the Chinese microblogging service Weibo, where many users praised Chinese troops and posted anti-India comments, including references to “printing,” which in Mandarin is a homophone for “fighting India.” Some users shared images purportedly showing the remains of Indian soldiers killed on Monday.

Ma Jiali, an India watcher at the China Reform Forum, a think tank affiliated with the Communist Party’s elite Central Party School, said the clash was triggered by India’s “forward-moving posture” in the disputed area, including its efforts to develop infrastructure there, which triggered a Chinese response.

The fact that China hasn’t disclosed casualty figures was a sign China was taking a restrained approach to avoid agitating nationalistic sentiment at home, Mr. Ma said.

“Both sides have different understandings regarding the Line of Actual Control,” Mr. Ma said. “The contradiction between the two sides’ views is the fuse that led to this clash.”

SOURCE: The Wall Street Journal 

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