The United States has offered full-throated support to India following reports of renewed clashes between Indian and Chinese troops on their ill-demarcated border.
The Department of Defense “continues to closely watch developments along the line of actual control at the India-China border,” said Brigadier General Pat Ryder, the Pentagon’s spokesperson, on Tuesday in reference to the 2,100-mile boundary known as the LAC.
India’s defense chief, Rajnath Singh, had earlier confirmed newspaper reports about a “physical scuffle” that took place on December 9 in Tawang, a town in the eastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh—which China claims in its entirety as part of Tibet. As is typical of these incidents at the border, the face-off involved fists, sticks and stones, according to The Hindu.
Singh told parliamentarians that soldiers of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army had tried to “unilaterally change the status quo” by crossing the LAC, resulting in non-fatal injuries on both sides as the Indian Army resisted. It was the first incident to be made public since a skirmish in June 2020, in which 20 Indian and at least four Chinese troops were killed.
The incident in Tawang reflected a “growing trend by the [People’s Republic of China] to assert itself and to be provocative in areas directed towards US allies and our partners in the Indo-Pacific,” said Ryder.
“We will continue to remain steadfast in our commitment to ensuring the security of our partners and we fully support India’s ongoing efforts to de-escalate this situation,” he added, framing Beijing’s actions as part of a pattern of land and maritime border disputes across the region.
The nuclear-armed neighbors fought a war over their Himalayan frontier in 1962, a conflict that allowed China to consolidate strategic positions. But the already fluid lines, which contain snowcaps, ravines and rugged peaks, shift with the seasons, bringing Indian and Chinese patrols together for encounters that sometimes turn into brawls but mostly end in mutually agreed disengagement.
Beijing’s military appeared to contradict its diplomats on Tuesday after the Chinese foreign ministry had said the situation at the border remained “generally stable.”
Col. Long Shaohua, spokesperson for the PLA’s Western Theater Command, said a routine patrol in the area, which China calls Dongzhang, had been obstructed by “Indian troops who had illegally crossed the LAC.”
“The Chinese troops made a professional, normative and resolute response, bringing the situation under control,” said Long, who called on India to “strictly control and discipline its frontline troops and work with the Chinese side to maintain peace and tranquility in the border area.”
Indian newspapers reported that the two sides had been jostling for control of a 17,000-foot peak in the area. However, New Delhi is facing a major build-up of Beijing’s forces at nearby army and air bases in Tibet.
Ryder said China was continuing to “mass forces and build military infrastructure” along the disputed border.
It’s unclear whether the two sides had intended to keep the latest incident under wraps, with New Delhi’s official response coming only after The Hindu‘s report on Monday.
On China’s largely insular internet, social media users reacted with a certain degree of frustration after learning about the clash through the foreign press or from Western networking sites, according to the current affairs magazine India Today.
After the fatal skirmishes in 2020, the Chinese public had to wait eight months to learn the PLA casualty count. When the information was eventually released, authorities clamped down on scrutiny of the late-coming official figures and the Communist Party’s propaganda outlets dubbed the Chinese soldiers martyrs.
Sana Hashmi, a researcher at the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation think tank in Taipei, said both India and China would prefer less media scrutiny.
Although the longstanding border dispute is a bilateral issue, New Delhi would have welcomed Washington’s support after last week’s clashes, she told Newsweek. “There’s no doubt that China’s aggression is at the core of the Indo-Pacific,” she said.
“I think it was a very timely response, and a very good response in terms of how they accused China very bluntly,” Hashmi said. “This shows how India-US relations are changing, and how China is becoming a binding factor in the relationship.”
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