India has scaled up security along a disputed border with China to push back against what an India defense official called an encroachment of its territory, following a brawl between the two countries’ troops earlier this month.
The first major flare-up in a year, the Dec. 9 clash fueled tensions between the two powers, which have been locked in a bitter standoff since a deadly confrontation in 2020 killed at least 20 Indian and four Chinese soldiers. The recent tussle has highlighted how precarious the situation remains despite earlier pledges from both countries to pull back and de-escalate.
“Today, we have a deployment of the Indian Army on the China border that we have never had. It is done in order to counter Chinese deployment which has been scaled up massively since 2020,” India’s foreign minister S Jaishankar said in a public event on Monday. He stressed the need to counter any attempt from China to unilaterally change the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
The LAC divides Chinese and Indian-held territories, but both countries disagree over where it actually is, leading to frequent scuffles between troops patrolling the line.
In the latest scuffle, Chinese troops entered the mountainous Tawang city in Arunachal Pradesh—which sits on the eastern tip of India and which China also considers part of Tibet and thus its own territory—where they encountered an Indian patrol team and traded blows. Troops from both sides sustained minor injuries, according to the Indian army.
A new report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute found that China has in the past year invested more heavily than India in infrastructure in the area, including the construction of a new road that allowed Chinese troops to rapidly access the site of the recent clash from a border village.
India’s defense minister Rajnath Singh said the incident was sparked by Chinese troops who “encroached into Indian territory,” while senior colonel Long Shaohua, a Chinese army spokesperson, insisted Indian troops “illegally crossed the line” and obstructed Chinese troops conducting a routine patrol.
China has played down the recent skirmish and described the border areas as “generally stable.”
“The two sides have maintained smooth communication on boundary-related issues through diplomatic and military channels,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said earlier this month.
“The Indian response is fundamentally defensive,” Manoj Kewalramani, chairperson of the Indo-Pacific Research Program at the Bangalore-based think tank Takshashila Institution, told VICE World News.
Kewalramani said China has been seeking to change the status quo and pressing its claims deeper into Indian territory, including building Chinese settlements and military infrastructure along the border. “What the Indians did was a mirror deployment,” he said.
“At the end of the day, this is simply about political will from China,” Kewalramani said, noting that previous protocols have allowed the border to remain largely peaceful for 45 years before China began stepping up incursions and the bloody conflict in 2020 plunged bilateral ties into a historic low.
Both countries have agreed not to use firearms near the frontiers, but as more troops are deployed with a greater degree of weaponization, Kewalramani fears that there would only be more sources of friction in the future, which could potentially get out of hand. Over the years, the conflict has escalated from stone-throwing to firing warning shots in 2020. In the latest clash, Chinese soldiers reportedly carried stun guns and spiked clubs.
“The more you see such instances where there is violence, serious injuries or, potentially, loss of lives, the more difficult it will be to return to that degree of trust,” he added. “The worst case scenario is that both sides end up sleepwalking into a war.”
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