Chinese and Indian troops have reportedly engaged in a clash last week in a disputed area that resulted in “many” injuries on both sides, according to media reports originating in India.
“Indian, Chinese troops in new border brawl, injuries on both sides,” stated AFP. According to Indian media, some 20 Chinese soldiers sustained injuries during the clash while four on the Indian side were injured.
The incident, which is said to have taken place in the north Sikkim region last Wednesday, would be the latest in a string of clashes in the contested border region. Both India and China claim large swathes of the territory.
The alleged incident comes months after around 20 Indian soldiers died in a similar clash in the Ladakh region last June when a Chinese patrol sought to enter Indian-controlled territory. China did not confirm at the time that it suffered fatalities in the clash, which involve fists and wooden clubs.
India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar admitted last month that the relations between the two Asian giants remain “significantly damaged” by the events of last year.
Last Wednesday’s incident also did not involve an exchange of fire, although reports have claimed that the two sides came to blows using sticks and stones.
India’s army claims that the “minor” incident has since been resolved, saying that there “was a minor face-off at Naku La area of North Sikkim on 20 January 2021 and the same was resolved by local commanders as per established protocols,” reports the BBC. The Indian Army also urged media to not overplay the significance of the event.
The Times of India has characterized the incident as a “physical brawl,” with one source claiming that the altercation unfolded after a PLA intrusion, and that the clash was defused after both sides called in reinforcements.
However, Chinese state media has roundly dismissed the reports as fake news, citing an absence of reports by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in its front line patrol logs, according to the Global Times.
The Foreign Ministry of the People’s Republic of China also has said that it has “no information on the incident,” with foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian saying that Chinese troops “dedicated themselves to safeguarding the peace and tranquility” of the border region. “China urges India to work in the same direction,” he added.
The reported incidents come amid ongoing military-level talks between the Asian neighbors, although such dialogue surrounding the border has been constant.
Troops have persisted in facing each other across various flashpoints strewn across the massive contested border, with many observers seeing the exchanges as simply unavoidable given the fluidity of the situation and failure of both sides to settle their territorial disputes.
Both sides agree that it remains essential that the two nuclear-armed neighbors avoid an escalation of hostilities, but tensions have remained high between China and India.
New Delhi has cast suspicion on China’s growing diplomatic and economic clout in the region, which has come through major investment schemes touted by Beijing as key to developing the South Asian region.
The Hindu nationalist government of India has banned some 200 Chinese apps made by its tech giants while also blocking trade deals with Chinese companies. China, in turn, has warned that India will pay a significant economic cost if the dispute continues.
At the heart of ongoing tensions is the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the 2,100-mile (3,379 km) de facto border dividing the two states. Both countries have a range of disagreements about the most basic facts concerning the border, which is largely a result of clashes that have roiled the region since the 19th century, when colonial powers – including a Britain that controlled much of South Asia as a colonial power – fought one another to wrest land from a weakened China. Since both countries gained independence in the mid-20th century, the two have had severe conflicts of interests regarding control of the region and their shared border.
The LAC itself is the result of the Sino-Indian border war of 1962, which resulted in a humiliating defeat for India at the hands of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Since then, there has been intermittent fighting in the region that has claimed the lives of hundreds of soldiers on both sides. In 1996, the two agreed to bar the use of guns and explosives at the LOC.
Early in January, the outgoing administration of U.S. President Trump declassified its 2018 Indo-Pacific strategy that was originally meant to be secret for three decades. The release of the strategy, which envisioned a U.S.-led alliance militarily and diplomatically backing India as a “counterbalance to China,” greatly embarrassed New Delhi as a transparent attempt to to box in Biden’s approach to China.
However, it remains uncertain that the Biden administration, which is also preoccupied by foreign policy challenges vis-à-vis Beijing, will offer the same level of support to New Delhi or follow the same strategy as the Trump administration did. It is equally unclear whether India’s own military and economic capabilities can meet its ambition to challenge the growing power of China.
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