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International relations

New tensions flare up along disputed India-China border

New Delhi and Beijing trade accusations over weekend incident at Himalayan lake

An Indian Army convoy moves along a highway leading to Ladakh in Kashmir's Ganderbal district on June 18.   © Reuters

NEW DELHI/BEIJING -- India and China on Monday accused each others' troops of provocative movements along their de facto Himalayan border more than two months after a violent confrontation that left 20 Indian soldiers dead and unspecified casualties on the Chinese side.

The incident occurred on the night of August 29-30, India's defense ministry said in a statement, accusing People's Liberation Army troops of violating the previous consensus arrived at during military and diplomatic talks.

"Indian troops pre-empted this PLA activity on the Southern Bank of Pangong Tso Lake [in eastern Ladakh], undertook measures to strengthen our positions and thwart Chinese intentions to unilaterally change facts on [the] ground," it said. Previous clashes had taken place on the northern bank.

"The Indian Army is committed to maintaining peace and tranquility through dialogue, but is also equally determined to protect its territorial integrity," the statement said, adding a brigade commander-level flag meeting was in progress between the two sides at the Chushul border point to resolve the issue.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the PLA's Western Theater Command, which oversees Chinese troops on the disputed border, accused the Indian army of crossing the so-called Line of Actual Control in a "flagrant provocation."

The spokesperson condemned the action and said Chinese troops "have taken necessary measures."

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters at a news briefing on Monday in Beijing that Chinese border troops "never cross the Line of Actual Control." The LAC serves as a de facto border between the two countries in the absence of a mutually accepted boundary.

Neither side gave details on the confrontation or said whether there were casualties, suggesting the incident may have been a minor scuffle.

But the Indian statement was made public, unlike in the past when clashes were reported based on information obtained from sources.

"The release of the Indian statement to the media seems to signal the confrontation was serious," strategic affairs expert Brahma Chellaney tweeted.

There have been several rounds of dialogue between the two sides to disengage, especially after the June 15 Galwan Valley clash in eastern Ladakh, which was the first fatal incident in over four decades. No major progress has been reported in the talks so far.

"Complete disengagement requires re-deployment of troops by each side towards their regular posts on their respective sides of the LAC," Anurag Srivastava, a spokesperson for India's Ministry of External Affairs, said last week.

"It is natural that this can be done only through mutually agreed reciprocal actions. Thus, it is important to bear in mind that achieving this requires agreed actions by both sides," Srivastava said.

New Delhi and Beijing have contested this stretch of Ladakh in the western Himalayas for decades. After a war in 1962, which India lost, both sides have stationed troops in the alpine region, yet followed a series of measures to ensure that tensions were kept under control -- including agreements prohibiting soldiers to carry weapons.

But since the ascension of  Xi Jinping to general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India -- both of whom follow muscular brands of foreign policy -- the PLA and the Indian Army have faced off multiple times in the region. 

"The system of protocols that was working for years to keep the peace petered out in the last seven or eight years," said Lt. Gen Rakesh Sharma, the former commander of the Indian Army's Leh-based 14 Corps which overlooks the contested area. "The Chinese position is hardening, and there seems to be no relaxation or signs of them withdrawing from areas they hold. However, this time, we saw them coming. We were prepared."

In early July, Modi paid a surprise visit to Ladakh to take stock of the situation on the ground. The visit was seen as a message of support for the soldiers stationed there and also sent a strong political signal to Beijing that New Delhi was serious about resolving the issue.

"Along [the borders], whoever tried to raise an eye toward the country's sovereignty, our armed forces gave them a befitting reply in the language they understand," Modi said in his address to the nation on the country's Independence Day on Aug. 15, referring to China and Pakistan, both regarded as threats.

Additional reporting by Wajahat Khan in New York.

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