India and China yesterday agreed to ease tensions at their disputed Himalayan border, even as they traded blame for a brawl that left at least 20 Indian soldiers dead.
The two nations’ foreign ministers spoke by telephone to calm nerves two days after a high-altitude melee involving fists, rocks and clubs in Galwan Valley in Ladakh.
The call between China’s Wang Yi and India’s Subrahmanyam Jaishankar came as sources told AFP that Indian paramilitaries were being deployed to the area of the skirmish high in the Himalayas opposite Tibet.
According to a read-out issued by the Ministry of External Affairs, Jaishankar conveyed India’s protest “in the strongest terms” on the violent face-off and accused that “the Chinese side took pre-meditated and planned action that was directly responsible for the resulting violence and casualties.”
He warned that “this unprecedented development will have a serious impact on the bilateral relationship” and urged Beijing to “take corrective steps”.
The Chinese foreign ministry said in a statement that Wang demanded “India conduct a thorough investigation” and punish those responsible.
“The Indian side must not misjudge the current situation, and must not underestimate China’s firm will to safeguard its territorial sovereignty,” it added.
But the two ministers also sought to de-escalate tensions.
China said both sides agreed to “cool down the situation on the ground as soon as possible”.
India’s foreign ministry said the two sides would implement a previously agreed disengagement, and “neither side would take any action to escalate matters”.
Official sources said front-line bases of the Indian Army and the Air Force along the nearly 3,500 km de-facto border with China were put on high alert, reported PTI.
The Indian Navy has also been asked to raise its alert level in the Indian Ocean Region where Chinese Navy has been making regular forays.
The decision to raise the alert level of the three defence forces were taken at a high-level meeting Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh held with Chief of Defence Staff Gen Bipin Rawat and the three service chiefs, our New Delhi correspondent said.
The army has already rushed in additional troops to all its key front-line bases and formations along the de facto border in Arunachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh states, they said.
China’s state broadcaster CCTV, meanwhile, showed footage of People’s Liberation Army tanks and soldiers holding live fire drills in Tibet.
China has refused to confirm if it suffered any casualties in the first deadly clashes at the border in decades, although Indian media said more than 40 Chinese troops were killed or seriously hurt.
The incident, which took place Monday at around 4,500 metres (15,000 feet) up in the Galwan valley area dominated Indian news channels and inflamed social media in both countries.
“Gloves are off, with the Galwan valley clash, China pushed too hard,” the Times of India wrote in an editorial. “India must push back.”
Small groups of protesters called for the boycott of Chinese goods, with some burning posters of Chinese president Xi Jinping.
In his first remarks on the deadly clashes, Prime Minister Narendra Modi yesterday told the nation the deaths of the soldiers “will not be in vain”.
“There should be no doubt that India wants peace, but if provoked, India will provide an appropriate response,” Modi said.
Top opposition leader and Congress party President Sonia Gandhi said that “in this time of crisis, my party stands with the army and the government. We are confident that the country will unite to face enemy.”
The Prime Minister has called an all-party meeting tomorrow to discuss the situation at the India-China border after the clashes in Ladakh. Presidents of various political parties will participate in the meeting on Friday via video, the Prime Minister’s Office said.
‘VIOLENT HAND-TO-HAND SCUFFLES’
The Monday’s clashes reportedly involved intense hand-to-hand fighting but no gunfire, in line with longstanding practices aimed at avoiding a full military confrontation.
An Indian army source told AFP there were “violent hand-to-hand scuffles”, while media said that Chinese troops attacked with rods and nail-studded clubs. Many of these killed appear to have been punched or shoved off a ridge onto rocks and into an icy river below.
Post-mortem examinations on some of those killed showed that the “primary reason for death is drowning and it looks like they fell from a height into the water because of head injuries,” an official told AFP.
Sources said yesterday that six Indian soldiers were still missing. Both sides have given competing versions of the violence.
Beijing said Indian troops “crossed the border line twice… provoking and attacking Chinese personnel”.
New Delhi said the Chinese side sought to “erect a structure” on the Indian side of the valley and “took pre-meditated and planned action that was directly responsible” for the violence.
CALLS FOR RESTRAINT
UN chief Antonio Guterres has urged both sides to exercise “maximum restraint,” his spokesperson said.
The United States — which has mounting frictions with China, but sees India as an emerging ally — said it was hoping for a “peaceful resolution”.
Russia’s foreign ministry said yesterday it hoped India and China would find mutually acceptable ways to ensure security on their border following deadly clashes, the Interfax news agency reported.
India and China have never even agreed on the length of their “Line of Actual Control” frontier.
They fought a brief war in 1962 and deadly clashes followed in 1967, but the last shot fired was in 1975 when four Indians died.
In 2017 there was a 72-day showdown after Chinese forces moved into the disputed Doklam plateau on the China-India-Bhutan border.
The recent uptick in tensions began in early May, when several Indian and Chinese soldiers were injured in a clash involving fists and stone-throwing.
Army officers and diplomats from both countries have held a series of meetings to try to end the impasse, with no breakthrough.
Military experts say one reason for the face-off is that India has been building roads and airfields to improve connectivity and narrow the gap with China’s far superior infrastructure.
At Galwan, India completed a road leading to an airfield last October. China has asked India to stop all construction. India says it is operating on its side of the Line of Actual Control, the de facto border.