China-India border dispute erupts in melee, with 20 Indian soldiers perishing in sub-zero temperatures

Foreign Affairs

The latest China-India border standoff has taken an unexpected violent turn, days after a deescalation was apparent, and midway through a 10-day period of ground-level military talks. 

Demonstrators burn posters of Chinese President Xi Jinping during a protest against China, in Ahmedabad, India, June 16, 2020. REUTERS/Amit Dave.

The Tribune India reports:

Indian and Chinese troops have disengaged at the Galwan area where 20 Indian Army personnel were killed in a violent clash in eastern Ladakh’s Galwan Valley on Monday night, the Indian Army said…

Initially, the army said one officer and two soldiers were killed. Later in the night, an army statement said 17 more soldiers who “were were critically injured in the line of duty at the standoff location and exposed to sub-zero temperatures in the high altitude terrain have succumbed to their injuries, taking the total that were killed in action to 20.”

“Indian and Chinese troops have disengaged at the Galwan area where they had earlier clashed on the night of 15/16 June 2020,” it said, adding that the “Indian Army is firmly committed to protect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the nation.”

Multiple sources in government and military establishments told PTI that the fierce clashes continued for several hours. The sources said the Chinese side also suffered “proportionate casualties” but chose not to speculate on the numbers.

The casualties came from “violent hand-to-hand scuffles,” rather than shots being fired, according to an Indian army official anonymously quoted by AFP

China did not officially confirm any deaths, either Indian or Chinese, though Global Times editor Hú Xījìn 胡锡进 tweeted, “Based on what I know, Chinese side also suffered casualties in the Galwan Valley physical clash.” 

Hu being who he is, he followed up that cryptic message with saber rattling: “I want to tell the Indian side, don’t be arrogant and misread China’s restraint as being weak. China doesn’t want to have a clash with India, but we don’t fear it.” 

The Chinese Foreign Ministry had the same message, delivered by the similarly nationalistic spokesperson Zhào Lìjiān 赵立坚, per AFP: “[Indian troops] crossed the border line twice…provoking and attacking Chinese personnel, resulting in serious physical confrontation between border forces on the two sides… We again solemnly request that India follows the relevant attitude and restrains its frontline troops.” Interestingly, this message appears to have been scrubbed from the Foreign Ministry press conference transcript for June 16. 

Though it’s hard to know exactly what happened in the Himalayas last night, it is certainly the deadliest day on the China-India border in more than half a century. And though Hu Xijin attempted to frame Beijing’s reluctance to publish casualty numbers as an act of “goodwill,” Taylor Fravel, a scholar of China’s military, says it is very much standard practice for Beijing to wait years or even decades to release casualty figures publicly. 

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