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India and China face off again at the border as troops advance

No punches were thrown and no one was injured, the analysts said, and the incident was much less severe than the vicious hockey-brawl type of melee that exploded in June in roughly the same area, when 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese troops were killed.

But China was emphatic that it had done nothing wrong. Chinese troops respect the border, known as the Line of Actual Control, said Zhao Lijian, spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, and Chinese troops “never crossed the line.”

Senior Colonel Zhang Shuili, a spokesman for the Western Theatre Command of the People’s Liberation Army, went further, accusing the Indian military of “blatant provocation” and ruining the agreement the two sides had reached over the area by making illegal incursions.

“This action by the Indian side has seriously violated Chinese territorial sovereignty, and seriously damaged the peace and stability of the Chinese-Indian border region,” Zhang said, according to Xinhua, China’s official news agency. He demanded that India immediately withdraw its forces and “strictly control and constrain frontline troops.”

“Chinese troops are taking necessary measures in response and will closely monitor developments,” he said.

The trouble seems to reflect that despite all the diplomatic activity between the two sides, and ongoing meetings between Chinese and Indian generals, the border remains a raw flash point in an increasingly nationalistic era.

Indian army trucks drive near Pangong Tso lake near the India-China border in India's Ladakh area in 2017.

Indian army trucks drive near Pangong Tso lake near the India-China border in India’s Ladakh area in 2017. Credit:AP

Neither side is backing down. Both countries are driven by dominant, nationalistic leaders — in India’s case, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and in China’s, President Xi Jinping.

Each nation has sent in thousands of reinforcements, supported with all the tools of modern warfare — tanks, artillery, helicopters and fighter jets. And no third country has emerged as a peacemaker to ease the tensions.

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.

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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 kilometres 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 Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research. “They have opened a new front.”

Soldiers faced off near Pagong Lake in Ladakh region.

Soldiers faced off near Pagong Lake in Ladakh region. Credit:AP

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 in August.

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 PLA,” he said. “So it will be doubly determined to not take any more guff from the Chinese.”

Whether or not a major war erupts is “the PLA’s call,” he said, and “the Indian government’s cautious passive-defensive mindset doesn’t help.”

The New York Times

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