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Indian and Chinese soldiers battle in latest high-altitude clash on border

An Indian Air Force fighter jet takes off from an air base in Leh, the capital of Ladakh bordering China, on Sept. 9, 2020. (Mohd Arhaan Archer/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW DELHI — Indian and Chinese troops have clashed in recent days, resulting in injuries, the Indian army said, marking the most serious incident along their contested mountainous border since soldiers from the two giant nations were killed and captured in June 2020.

On Dec. 9, People’s Liberation Army soldiers approached the notional border in the Tawang sector of Arunachal Pradesh, a state in far northeastern India claimed by China, leading to a faceoff and “minor injuries to few personnel from both sides,” the Indian army said in a statement Monday. The statement added that both sides quickly withdrew from the area and local commanders met to discuss the dispute.

Appearing before the Indian parliament Tuesday, Defense Minister Rajnath Singh accused Chinese troops of crossing into Indian territory and “disrupting the status quo unilaterally.” Singh said the two sides were engaged in hand-to-hand combat and no Indians were killed or seriously wounded. He did not give details about what had happened or how many soldiers were involved in the confrontation.

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Long Shaohua, spokesperson of China’s Western Theater Command, said in a brief statement that China’s patrol was blocked by Indian troops who had “illegally” crossed the line. He added that the force used was normal and called for Delhi to restrain its front line troops.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman also Wang Wenbin told reporters that, in general, the border situation was “stable.”

“The two sides have always maintained smooth communication on border-related issues through diplomatic and military channels,” he said at a daily press briefing in Beijing on Tuesday.

For decades, India and China have had numerous overlapping claims along their 2,100-mile border, which stretches across nearly the entire Himalayan range. In 1962, when the countries fought a bloody, high-altitude war over the contested territories, China seized Arunachal Pradesh, which it claims as part of South Tibet, before returning it to Indian control.

In recent years, soldiers from both sides have patrolled up to the Line of Actual Control (LAC), which serves as a notional border. Under a 1996 bilateral agreement, border troops are prohibited from using firearms within 2 kilometers (just over a mile) of the line.

In May 2020, the two sides began tussling over Indian road construction on a barren plateau in Ladakh, at the far northern tip of India. That June, 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese died in a bloody brawl in Ladakh’s Galwan River valley. Soldiers bashed each other using stones, makeshift clubs and other weapons short of firearms — and hurled each other off cliffs, according to media reports in both countries. That September, gunshots were fired for the first time in decades.

Friday’s clash involved hundreds of soldiers, with some using primitive weapons reminiscent of the deadly 2020 brawl, according to Indian media reports. It’s not clear whether the flare-up will seriously derail ongoing talks to lower border tensions.

But there is “no significant reduction” in Chinese troop levels in Ladakh, Indian army chief Manoj Pande said in November. He called the border situation “stable but unpredictable.”

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Meanwhile, Arunachal Pradesh has seen less of a military buildup but remains tense. Opposition politicians and even local leaders from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have warned about steady Chinese encroachment on their territory and a buildup of infrastructure and settlements near the border, which have all gone uncontested by New Delhi.

A U.S. Army soldier and an Indian army soldier run up a hill during a joint exercise, or Yudh Abhyas, in Tapovan, the Indian state of Uttarakhand, on Nov. 30. (Manish Swarup/AP)

China, for its part, has complained about India’s growing closeness with the United States, including in the realm of military cooperation. This month, the U.S. Army’s 11th Airborne Division and their Indian counterparts took part in exercises known as Yudh Abhyas. The exercises are scheduled annually but were seen as symbolically significant this year because they took place 65 miles from the Chinese border and focused on mountain warfare and disaster relief operations.

The exercises with U.S. troops “violate the spirit” of border agreements between the two countries, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said last month. “It is not conducive to mutual trust between China and India.”

In its annual China Military Power Report published on Nov. 29, the Pentagon said Chinese officials “have warned U.S. officials to not interfere with [China’s] relationship with India.”

Shams Irfan contributed to this report.