Indian and Chinese troops have engaged in a new confrontation on the disputed Himalayan border between the nuclear-armed neighbours, where at least 20 Indian troops were killed in a brawl in June.
The latest encounter will increase tension between two countries that have undertaken an intense military build-up in recent months on what was previously a lightly patrolled border in the sparsely populated region of Ladakh.
The Indian government said on Monday that the confrontation occurred overnight on Saturday when People’s Liberation Army troops undertook “provocative movements to change the status quo” on the southern bank of Ladakh’s remote Pangong Tso lake, an area long claimed by India.
New Delhi said Indian troops “pre-empted this PLA activity . . . undertook measures to strengthen our positions and thwart Chinese intentions to unilaterally change facts on the ground”.
No details were provided of casualties but analysts said the rare release of a public statement suggested a significant development. It said brigade commanders were holding talks “to resolve the issues” raised by the skirmishes.
“It shows the situation is serious,” said Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at New Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research. “The Chinese are still seeking to advance their aggression by encroaching on further Indian areas.”
China’s foreign ministry on Monday denied that PLA troops had crossed the “line of actual control” — the unmarked informal border between the two sides — and said talks were continuing.
On Monday evening, the Global Times, a Chinese newspaper, quoted the PLA’s western command as saying that Indian troops had “crossed the line of actual control at the border on Monday and purposely launched provocations”.
The PLA said China “strongly opposes the acts and urges India to immediately withdraw the troops that have illegally crossed the LAC”.
By tradition, Indian and Chinese border patrols have not used firearms in their encounters since 1993, part of mutually agreed protocols intended to prevent inadvertent escalation of hostilities on the border.
But after the deaths in June, the first fatalities on the disputed border since the 1970s, the Indian army has indicated it will no longer observe the old rules of engagement, analysts say.
Multiple rounds of talks between India and China on a potential military pullback since the June clashes have made little progress. General Bipin Rawat, India’s chief of defence staff, said recently that “the military option to deal with the transgressions by the Chinese is still on” if talks failed.
India has attempted to retaliate against what it alleges is Beijing’s aggression with tough economic action against Chinese companies.
New Delhi banned the video app TikTok and 58 other Chinese apps, imposed fresh restrictions on Chinese investment, and informally told local telecom operators to phase out equipment from suppliers such as Huawei from their networks.
But analysts say the latest skirmish suggests new areas of the border region are heating up.
Indian and Chinese troops have long jockeyed for strategic position on the Pangong lake’s north bank, which has been one of the main friction points in this summer’s stand-off. But Indian analysts say the lake’s southern bank has not previously seen such action.
New Delhi said on Monday that the Chinese troops’ latest actions “violated the previous consensus” in diplomatic and military talks intended defuse tensions.
The stand-off has escalated since the spring, when New Delhi, which postponed its annual exercises in Ladakh due to coronavirus, discovered that Chinese troops had established positions in several areas traditionally patrolled by Indian troops.
Hostilities erupted into deadly violence in mid-June, when at least 20 Indian soldiers, including an officer, and an unknown number of Chinese were killed in a brawl in the remote Galwan Valley.
Chinese troops also captured 10 Indian soldiers, who were released about 60 hours later after intense negotiations.
Since then, Mr Chellaney said Chinese troops had dug into several contested positions and built infrastructure despite talks over a potential disengagement. India has demanded that China restore the status quo from before the spring.
“The situation has gone from bad to worse,” Mr Chellaney said. “The Chinese have consolidated their hold on areas that they encroached upon in April and May . . . and they have encroached on new areas. All the encroachments happen by stealth. The only way you can stop them or evict them is by force, which means having a war.”