An Indian Army officer and two soldiers were killed by Chinese troops late Monday in a clash along the disputed India-China border, Indian officials said, raising tensions between the world’s two most populous nations.
Preliminary reports on Tuesday indicated that the soldiers had not been shot, but had been killed in a brawl involving rocks and wooden clubs that was similar to fights that broke out last month along the border and seriously injured several soldiers on both sides.
It was the first time in decades that soldiers were killed in a skirmish along the border, military experts said, and it was not immediately clear how India would respond to China, which has a much more powerful military. A senior Indian Army officer said that more than 20 Indian soldiers had also been captured and many might still be in Chinese custody.
Indian officials were tight-lipped about what happened and said they were trying to de-escalate the situation. They had just indicated that tensions with China were calming down after Indian and Chinese troops had faced off at several points high in the Himalayas in the past few weeks. India seemed caught off guard by the new burst of violence, which the two sides blamed on each other.
“During the de-escalation process underway in the Galwan Valley, a violent face-off took place yesterday night with casualties,” according to a statement in the Indian news media that was attributed to Indian military officials. “The loss of lives on the Indian side includes an officer and two soldiers. Senior military officials of the two sides are currently meeting at the venue to defuse the situation.”
In Beijing, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, Zhao Lijian, said that Indian forces had twice crossed the border illegally on Monday and attacked Chinese personnel. He said the Chinese side had “lodged strong protests” but continued to work toward resolving the tensions between the two countries.
Indian television channels reported that several Chinese soldiers had been killed, as well, citing high-level Indian government sources. But Chinese officials did not comment on that. Indian military analysts said that a colonel was among those who had died, the fight had erupted on Indian territory and it had involved a large number of troops from each side battling with rocks, clubs and their hands.
“This was an incident waiting to happen,” said H.S. Panag, a retired Indian general. “We were warning that the P.L.A. has come in, intruded in our area, and they were prepared for a limited border conflict or skirmishes,” he said, referring to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. “The situation was simmering since the last week of April.”
The violence is a continuation of a long-running dispute between India and China about the precise location of their jagged Himalayan border, known as the Line of Actual Control. In 1962, the two countries went to war over this line, which cuts through a desolate, sparsely inhabited landscape of rock and ice. Both sides maintain high-altitude military installations facing each other, and armed skirmishes continued through the late 1960s and mid-’70s, military analysts said.
The spark for the recent tensions seemed to have been a road to a remote air force base that the Indian Army is building through mountain passes in the Galwan Valley more than 14,000 feet above sea level. Military analysts say that the road is fully within Indian territory but that the Chinese are determined to frustrate India’s efforts to upgrade its military positions.
Last month, Chinese troops confronted Indian soldiers at several border points in the Himalayas, some more than 1,000 miles apart. Since then, both armies have rushed in thousands of reinforcements. Indian analysts say that China has beefed up its forces with dump trucks, excavators, troop carriers, artillery and armored vehicles, and that China is occupying around 250 square miles of Indian territory.
The packs of soldiers from the two countries who march up and down the mountains are under strict orders not to shoot at each other, but that doesn’t stop them from throwing rocks or battling with crude weapons or even their fists. In the last brawl, in May, several soldiers were seriously injured; some had to be airlifted to hospitals hundreds of miles away.
Videos and photos circulating on social media showed soldiers on both sides had even been captured, at least briefly, but China and India revealed few details. Some Indian military analysts say the Chinese troops have used wooden clubs studded with nails.
Foreign-policy analysts say the increasing friction in the Himalayas is a product of a more forceful China stepping up efforts to defend its territorial claims across Asia. In recent weeks, the Chinese have sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat in the South China Sea, swarmed a Malaysian offshore oil rig, menaced Taiwan and severely tightened their grip on the semiautonomous region of Hong Kong.
The confrontations with India fit “a broader pattern of Chinese assertiveness,” said Tanvi Madan, director of the India Project at the Brookings Institution in Washington, noting that it was the fourth flare-up since China’s authoritarian leader, Xi Jinping, rose to power at the end of 2012.