On 15th June, India confirmed that 20 members of their armed forces were killed in a violent clash in Kashmir. Indian and Chinese soldiers faced off on the hotly contested western Himalayan border, leading to the worst military crisis between the two nuclear-capable states in almost 60 years.
India and China often choose not to arm their soldiers in this region to prevent unnecessary outbreaks of violence. However, in this instance it is believed troops fought each other with rocks, stones and hand-to-hand combat after an Indian patrol unexpectedly encountered Chinese soldiers. The clash resulted in the first loss of life in the region since 1975.
Tensions have been on the rise in recent weeks as China encroached on disputed territory along what is known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC). It is understood that Indian soldiers had repeatedly warned Chinese forces to leave the area, before outbreaks of fist fights, detainments and stone throwing began to erupt. However, it was believed the dispute could be de-escalated as senior figures from both armies met on 6th June to commit to a policy of disengagement. Despite this, things soon turned sour as the two groups met in the Galwan valley, with Chinese PLA troops reportedly retreating before turning back and facing Indian soldiers. The clash had initially left three dead, but a later statement by the Indian army announced a further 17 troops were: “critically injured in the line of duty at the stand-off location and exposed to sub-zero temperatures in high altitude terrain [had] succumbed to their injuries”.
Stones and iron rods were used as weapons as many fell to their deaths. The Indian government believes many are still missing and it is likely that the death toll will grow.
The volatile region has seen years of violence as both countries claim long stretches of the Himalayan mountain range. Though the area remains uninhabited, it has been wrought with conflict for many years. In 1962, both China and India faced off in a full-scale war over the region and, in 2013 and 2017, armed clashes occurred. India has recently begun building new roads, airstrips, and infrastructure on its border with China, which led to the latter beginning its encroachment on disputed territory.
Both sides have firmly placed the blame on each other. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs claimed China had “departed from the consensus to respect the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Galwan valley,” which as a result led to the “violent face-off”. They further added, “Both sides suffered casualties that could have been avoided had the agreement at the high level been scrupulously followed by the Chinese side”. However, the Chinese army’s commander in the western theatre, Zhang Shuli, accused Indian forces of crossing the “control line” and “deliberately [launching] provocative attacks causing both sides to engage in intense physical conflict that resulted in casualties”.
The United States, who have fragile relations with China but view India as an emerging ally, announced it is monitoring the situation closely and hoping for a “peaceful resolution”.