India China border clash: 20 Indian Army soldiers killed in Ladakh

  • Violent clashes with Chinese troops end with major casualties on both sides, the first time in 45 years that the neighbouring countries have shed blood
  • The Army said no firing was involved, fuelling speculation that the deaths were caused in hand-to-hand fighting

Elizabeth Roche
Updated17 Jun 2020
Chinese police officers patrol outside the Indian embassy in Beijing on Tuesday
Chinese police officers patrol outside the Indian embassy in Beijing on Tuesday

In a major escalation of tensions between India and China, as many as 20 Indian Army personnel were killed in a “violent face off” with Chinese troops in the Galwan area of Ladakh late on Monday, the Indian Army said.

“Seventeen Indian troops who were critically injured in the line of duty at the stand off 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,” the Army said in a late Tuesday statement. It had earlier said one officer and two soldiers were killed.

The seriousness of the clash can be gauged from the fact that this is first time in 45 years that either side has reported casualties during a face-off, despite sharing uneasy ties. The last time casualties were reported was in 1975 in the Tawang area of Arunachal Pradesh, said Deependra Singh Hooda, a former General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Indian Army’s Northern command under which Ladakh falls.

The incident is expected to deepen the geopolitical fault lines in Asia with one of the outcomes being a possible closing of ranks among China’s rivals and India, analysts said.

Monday’s clashes upend an understanding reached between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2018 after the 73-day-long Doklam military standoff that differences should not be allowed to become disputes. The two leaders had also agreed in other meetings that peace and tranquillity along the border was important for stable bilateral ties.

A look at the key incidents in the volatile area over the past month

The sudden spurt in tensions came just days after India said the two sides were in the process of a limited disengagement—or tactical withdrawal—in Ladakh.

“During the de-escalation process underway in the Galwan Valley, a violent face-off took place yesterday night with casualties. The loss of lives on the Indian side includes an officer and two soldiers. Senior military officials of the two sides are currently meeting at the venue to defuse the situation,” Indian Army said on Tuesday.

The Army amended this later to add that there were “casualties on both sides”.

The Indian Army said there was no firing involved, fuelling speculation that the deaths were caused during hand-to-hand fighting or assaults with stones or rods. Unconfirmed news reports said some Indian soldiers—the numbers varying between 13 to 34—were also missing after the clash. China’s state-run Global Times claimed five People’s Liberation Army soldiers were killed and 11 injured in the clash.

In a terse statement, foreign ministry spokesman Anurag Srivastava said India had been hopeful that the de-escalation process would unfold smoothly, but “the Chinese side departed from the consensus to respect the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Galwan Valley.”

With China trying to “unilaterally change the status quo”, both sides “suffered casualties that could have been avoided” had China stuck to what had been agreed, he said. “We remain firmly convinced of the need for the maintenance of peace and tranquillity in the border areas and the resolution of differences through dialogue. At the same time, we are also strongly committed to ensuring India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Srivastava added.

The sudden spurt in tensions ironically came as the two sides were engaged in discussions to pull back troops, amassed over weeks, after clashes in early May. The cause for this was China objecting to a road that India was building on the banks of the Pangong Tso Lake in Ladakh.

Sameer Patil, an expert on international security at the Mumbai-based Gateway House think tank, said “India will have to start to take concrete steps to ensure both countries move toward resolving the boundary issue.”

“China has an idea of where India thinks its border with China lies since we have given them a map. India should now seek a map from China that gives us a sense of what their perception of the border is,” he said.

The situation along the border was reviewed by defence minister Rajnath Singh who met senior military officials twice on Tuesday.

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