NEW DELHI – Indian and Chinese troops clashed last week in an incident that caused minor injuries on both sides, Indian officials said Monday, underscoring the persistent border tensions between the two nuclear-armed neighbors.
India and China share an unofficial frontier that stretches 2,200 miles. Last June, the two countries engaged in their deadliest conflict in more than five decades, a high-altitude brawl in which 20 Indian soldiers were killed along with an unknown number of Chinese casualties.
Since then, tens of thousands of Indian and Chinese troops have been locked in a stalemate near the site of the clash in Ladakh. Soldiers are enduring brutal winter temperatures high in the mountains as talks have failed to deescalate the situation.
The latest incident took place hundreds of miles from that standoff at a different section of the frontier in the eastern Himalayas.
Indian and Chinese soldiers engaged in a “minor faceoff” on Jan. 20 in the Naku La area of the state of Sikkim, the Indian Army said in a statement. The situation was “resolved by local commanders as per established protocols.”
Minor injuries were suffered on both sides, said an Indian official with knowledge of the incident who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter.
A second Indian official who also spoke on the condition of anonymity characterized the clash as “hand-to-hand combat.”
Indian media reports suggested that more than 20 Chinese and Indian soldiers were injured in the scuffle. The Indian Army statement did not mention injuries and asked the media to refrain from “exaggerating or overplaying” their reporting.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said he didn’t have any information to offer on the incident and urged India to exercise restraint, Reuters reported.
India should “refrain from actions that might escalate or complicate the situation along the border,” Zhao told reporters at a briefing.
Hu Xijin, editor of the Chinese state-run tabloid Global Times, dismissed the reports of multiple injuries. “This is fake news,” he wrote on Twitter. “Based on what I learned, there is no record of this clash in the patrol log of the Chinese side.”
The current frictions began in May, when China intruded into areas claimed by India at several points along the frontier, experts say. They believe that China may now control as much as 400 square miles of territory that India considers its own.
Last week’s confrontation came as high-ranking military officials from the two countries were preparing to meet for their ninth round of talks on the standoff at the border, which is known as the Line of Actual Control. An Indian army spokesman said Monday that the talks were “positive” and both sides had agreed to push for an “early disengagement” of their troops.
Whether such pronouncements translate into action on the ground remains to be seen. There have been no further deadly clashes at the frontier since June, but the situation remains tense. In September, shots were fired in Ladakh for the first time in decades. By mutual agreement, Indian and Chinese soldiers have been restricted from using firearms along the border.
India and China last fought a war in 1962. Since then, they’ve mostly handled their border disagreements through dialogue. The current impasse, however, is proving difficult to resolve. Shyam Saran, a former senior Indian diplomat, said the fact that talks were still taking place was “a reason to hope” that an understanding will be reached through negotiation.
Saurav Jha, a defense analyst in Delhi, was less sanguine. “Tensions are quite high,” said Jha. “When you have large forces in close proximity and there is no resolution after rounds and rounds of talks, then the probability of something happening cannot be considered insignificant.”