India's top general says standoff with China may spark larger conflict

India’s top military commander warns a tense standoff with Chinese forces on Himalayan border could spark a ‘larger conflict’ – months after brutal hand-to-hand brawls left 20 soldiers dead

  • Bipin Rawat said the situation was tense at the disputed border in eastern Ladakr
  • Indian and Chinese troops are locked in a months-long confrontation
  • Brutal hand-to-hand combat left 20 Indian soldiers dead in June this year

India’s top military commander today warned a tense border standoff with Chinese forces in the western Himalayas could spark a larger conflict, even as senior commanders from both sides met near the frontline for their eighth round of talks. 

Chief of Defence Staff Bipin Rawat said the situation was tense at the Line of Actual Control, the de facto border, in eastern Ladakh, where thousands of Indian and Chinese troops are locked in a months-long confrontation.

‘We will not accept any shifting of the Line of Actual Control,’ Rawat said in an online address.

‘In the overall security calculus, border confrontations, transgressions and unprovoked tactical military actions spiralling into a larger conflict cannot therefore be discounted,’ he said. 

Brutal hand-to-hand combat in June left 20 Indian and an undisclosed number of Chinese soldiers dead, escalating tensions and triggering large deployments on the remote, desolate border area.

The Indians claimed that after their men were savaged with nail-studded clubs, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army mutilated their corpses in June

India said its soldiers were mutilated after being beaten to death with nail-studded clubs by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army at the disputed Himalayan border. 

Among the dead was Colonel B. Santosh Babu, Commanding Officer of the 16 Bihar regiment.  

His mother Manjula told the New Indian Express: ‘I lost my son, I cannot bear it. But he died for the country and that makes me happy and proud.’

China said it suffered 43 casualties, but did not specify whether any of its men had been killed in the hand-to-hand combat in the Galwan Valley, Ladakh.   

No bullets were fired as per a peace treaty which bars firearms within 2km of the Line of Actual Control, the line drawn down the 17,000ft-high valley after India’s defeat in the 1962 Sino-Indian War.

An Indian Border Security Force soldier walks near a check post along the Srinagar-Leh National highway in June

Indian army officers carry the coffin of Colonel B. Santosh Babu for his funeral in Suryapet, about 90 miles from Hyderabad, India in June

Family members pay their respects at the coffin of Colonel B Santosh Babu, the Indian commander slain after trying to appease the Chinese

Colonel B Santosh Babu (left) was one of first men killed as the confrontation on the Ladakh border boiled over on Monday. His mother Manjula said: ‘I lost my son, I cannot bear it. But he died for the country and that makes me happy and proud.’ Another confirmed dead was Naib Subedar Mandeep Singh (right), from Patiala in Punjab

It was the first deadly conflict between the two nuclear-armed countries since the 1975 Arunachal ambush, during which four Indian soldiers were killed along the disputed border. 

Both sides have since attempted to ease the situation through diplomatic and military channels, but have made little headway, leaving soldiers facing-off in sub-zero temperatures in Ladakh’s snow deserts.

Senior Indian and Chinese commanders were meeting on Friday in Ladakh, the eight round of talks between the military leaderships since the crisis began, officials in New Delhi said.

The talks would likely include discussions on a Chinese proposal to pull some troops back from a contested area on the northern bank of Pangong Tso lake, where soldiers were separated by a few hundred metres, according to an Indian official.

Infantry troops, backed by artillery and armoured vehicles, are also facing off on the southern bank of the lake, where China has been pushing India to pull back, the official said.

Patch of uninhabitable desert that India and China have been fighting over for centuries 

The Himalayan border between India and China has been disputed for centuries, but the two countries have been fighting over it most recently since the 1960s.

In the 18th century it was fought over by the Russian, Chinese and British empires, and after India gained independence ownership of the region became more confused.

China values the region because it provides a trading route to Pakistan, and recent hostilities have been sparked by fears in Beijing that India will cut it off from the crucial overland corridor.

The current official border between the two was set by Britain and is known as the McMahon line. It is recognised by India but not by China.

In reality, the border between the two countries is on Line of Actual Control (LAC) where Indian and Chinese forces finished after the Sino-Indian War of 1962.

Aksai Chin, the site of the latest tensions, is located in India according to the official border but is claimed as part of the Chinese region of Xinjiang by Beijing.

It is an almost uninhabited high-altitude scrubland traversed by the Xinjiang-Tibet Highway.

The other disputed territory is hundreds of miles away to the east of Tibet.

The 1962 Sino-Indian War was fought on these two frontiers as Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru put it, a struggle over land where ‘not even a blade of grass grows.’ 

In addition to the disputed border, China had seized Tibet ten years before and accused India of trying to to subvert Beijing’s interests by granting asylum to the Dalai Lama.

There was also a Cold War element and India wanted to see if the US would back it in a confrontation against communist China.

Delhi had ignored the desolate corner of the subcontinent which allowed the Chinese to build a military road through it during the 1950s to connect the province of Xinjiang to Tibet.

The Indian discovery of this highway was a major factor which led to ferocious clashes leading up to the war. 

Yet the Indians had just two divisions posted at the border when the Chinese invaded, never suspecting that Beijing would be so bold as to cross the McMahon Line. 

The war lasted for one month and left more than 2,000 dead on both sides. It was a heavy defeat for India and led to the new border, the LAC, being established and pushing India back from McMahon line.

Much of the reason for the ongoing conflict is the ill-defined border, the result of a confused status the region had during the colonial era, which was made more murky by India’s war with Pakistan in 1947.

Chinese interest in the region surrounds President Xi Jinping’s centrepiece ‘Belt and Road’ foreign policy to have vast infrastructure throughout the old Silk Road. 

Beijing fears that increased Indian presence in the region will cut off its trade route to Pakistan.

The two sides have blamed each other for recent hostilities but analysts say India’s building of new roads in the region may have been the fuse for May’s standoff.

Both sides have dispatched reinforcements and heavy equipment to the zone. 

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