Three Indian soldiers were killed during a “violent face-off” with Chinese troops along the countries’ de facto border in the Himalayas late Monday, the Indian army said in a statement.
The incident occurred during a “deescalation process” underway in the Galwan Valley in the disputed Aksai Chin-Ladakh area, where a large troop build up has reportedly been taking place for weeks now on both sides of the border, before senior military commanders began talks earlier this month.
According to the Indian army statement, there was loss of life “on both sides,” including an Indian officer and two Indian soldiers. The statement did not specify the number of additional Chinese casualties. It added that senior military officials from both sides are currently meeting to defuse the situation.
Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh on Tuesday held a meeting with senior Indian military officers, according to the Indian army. He “reviewed the current operational situation in Eastern Ladakh” with the Chief of Defense Staff, and the chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force, the army said. The country’s External Affairs Minister was also present.
At a regular news conference Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said that on Monday “Indian troops seriously violated our consensus and twice crossed the border line for illegal activities and provoked and attacked Chinese personnel which lead to serious physical conflict between the two sides.”
“China has lodged strong protest and representation with the India side, and we once again we solemnly ask the India side to follow our consensus and strictly regulate its front line troops and do not cross the line and do not stir up troubles or take unilateral moves that may complicate matters,” Zhao added. “We both agreed to resolve this issue through dialogue and consolation and make efforts for easing the situation and upholding peace and tranquility in the border area.”
Zhao did not comment on whether there had been any Chinese casualties. Chinese military officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Monday’s deaths are the first military casualties along the disputed border for more than four decades, Indian defense experts told CNN.
“We have not had casualties on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) for at least 45 years,” said Happymon Jacob, an associate professor and political analyst at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. “This is perhaps a game-changer. This is perhaps the beginning of the end of the rapport that India has enjoyed with China for 45 years.”
Former Indian Chief of Army Staff, General Bikram Singh, also confirmed to CNN this is the first such deadly incident in the last 45 years.
Tensions have been growing in the Himalayas along one of the world’s longest land borders since last month, with New Delhi and Beijing both accusing the other of overstepping the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that separates the two nuclear armed neighbors. The territory has long been disputed, erupting into numerous minor conflicts and diplomatic spats since a bloody war between the two countries in 1962.
The LAC runs between Chinese-controlled Aksai Chin and the rest of the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region.
The rough border line was the result of the India China border dispute in 1962, but neither side agrees exactly where it is or how long it is.
Aksai Chin is administered by China as part of Xinjiang, but is also claimed by the Indian government as part of Ladakh.
The reported troop build up had left many worried about the potential for a confrontation, particularly as both Chinese and Indian media have published jingoistic calls for action.
Both Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have built public support in large part on nationalism and a promise of future greatness. This often translates into aggressive rhetoric, particularly when playing to a domestic audience.
Such an approach was evidenced in Chinese coverage of the PLA maneuvers in the Himalayas. Equally, despite Delhi’s public calls for easing tensions, leading Indian government figures have struck an aggressive tone, with Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah telling a rally of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) earlier this month that “any intrusion into the the borders of India will be punished.”
“Some used to say that US and Israel were the only countries which were willing and capable of avenging every drop of the blood of their soldiers,” Shah said. “(Modi) has added India to that list.”
Writing for CNN this month, retired Indian general Singh said that part of the problem is that the de facto border, the LAC, is so ill defined.
“At strategic and operational levels, both militaries have exercised restraint,” he said. “However, at the tactical level, face-offs occur due to differing perceptions of where the actual border is as the LAC is not delineated on the ground. While face-offs get resolved locally, those related to the building of infrastructure, such as roads and defence fortifications, invariably take longer and require a combination of military and diplomatic initiatives.”
Speaking before the most recent clash, former Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao said she hoped the current crisis won’t lead to an abandonment of long-standing diplomatic negotiations over the disputed territory.
“Even if tensions rise and tempers fray, they would do well to remember that they have to continue to manage their differences in a grown-up way because armed clashes and military combat can have extremely serious repercussions for the stability of the region going beyond the ambit of the purely bilateral relationship between the two countries,” she said.