NEW DELHI – Indian and Chinese troops have clashed on their disputed Himalayan border, according to media and military reports on Monday, as Beijing quietly intensifies pressure on its southern neighbor with new incursions into territory claimed by both sides.
Details of the latest skirmish remain hazy, and Indian officials underestimate the events. Indian media and independent military analysts said the clash took place a few days ago and that soldiers on both sides were injured, although no deaths were reported.
The Indian military said only that there was “minor opposition”
The clash was “authorized by local commanders according to established protocols,” the Indian military said in a statement, without explaining how the confrontation took place or whether anyone was injured.
The Chinese authorities were even tighter. At a regular press conference scheduled for Monday, Zhao Lijiang, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, stressed that the two countries are holding military talks. Hu Xijin, editor of the Global Times, a Communist-controlled nationalist tabloid, called the reports “fake news” and said small frictions happened often.
Although details were scarce, reports of a clash show that tensions are still boiling between the two Asian giants, who fought a war in 1962 and have been watching cautiously across their unresolved border ever since. Tensions erupted in the open in June when troops on both sides engaged in a deadly battle on the border of the Ladakh region in northern India.
No battles were fired in this battle, stemming from the tacit understanding that none of the sides on the tense Himalayan border should use firearms. Yet the deaths of more than 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers have revealed growing aggression on both sides, which are ruled by nationalist leaders with little political incentive to back down.
About 100,000 troops from the Indian and Chinese armies now face inhospitable mountain passes in sub-zero temperatures in the Ladakh region alone, military experts estimate.
Since the summer, both sides have been trying to ease tensions. But in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is battling reports that China is far from encroaching on disputed border lands.
NDTV’s report on new structures built in the rugged mountain region is difficult to verify independently. Two Indian government officials in Arunachal said the Chinese had recently built villages in disputed areas along the border in places that previously had only a few remote military posts.
“Where the army lived, some civilians have also started living there,” said DJ Borah, a senior district official based in the area.
Asked about the new village, Indian Foreign Ministry officials referred to a statement given to NDTV, in which the ministry said it was aware of the recent report and that “China has undertaken such infrastructure construction work in the last few years. ”
Leaders of India’s main opposition party have criticized Mr Modi for remaining silent on the issue. “China is expanding its occupation of Indian territory,” Rahul Gandhi, the party’s leader, the Indian National Congress, said on Twitter.
Chinese authorities do not deny that there are new villages in the area. But they say the area is in China.
“China’s normal construction on its own territory is entirely a matter of sovereignty,” Hua Chuning, a spokesman for China’s foreign minister, said this month.
Local leaders in Arunachal Pradesh, interviewed by The New York Times, said Chinese forces were slowly but steadily cutting off small pieces of Indian territory, similar to the strategy China has shown in the South China Sea and on its border with Bhutan. Military analysts call this slicing of salami.
“Longju was once our land,” said Chatung Mra, a bank governor, using the local name for the common area where the Chinese village is now. “Our ancestors lived there.”
“We feel very bad, but what can we do?” Mr. Mra asked. “We can’t fight them.”
The area in question is in the foothills of the Himalayas and more than 1,500 miles from the capital New Delhi. Official Indian maps show that the Longju area is located a few miles inside India, said local leaders who visited near the disputed area. But they say China has effectively controlled it since 1959.
In recent years, they said, China has undertaken numerous construction projects along the border and made areas that were previously accessible to the people of India now inaccessible.
Local leaders said China’s infrastructure campaign went far beyond what India was doing and was effective in taking over China’s disputed areas.
“Our place was five or six kilometers from Longju,” said Tungpo Mra, leader of the local Mra ethnic group. “Everything is under Chinese control now.”
Taro Bamina, secretary general of an Arunachal youth group, was particularly disappointed and helped organize a protest last week that included hundreds of protesters in Daporizho, a market town in Arunachal.
“This is our homeland,” Mr Bamina said. “We wanted to tell the government of India. “Why don’t you take care of that?”
What local leaders report in Arunachal is similar to what local leaders in Ladakh report more than 2,000 miles away. In the last few years, according to Ladakh leaders, China has stepped up construction projects on its border with India that run through high mountain passes and have never been marked. The result is that China can move troops – and civilians – to border lands much faster than India.
Chinese and Indian military commanders continue talks on the disputed border in the Ladakh region. Ladakh pastors, meanwhile, complained that they had to drive away Chinese vehicles that had brazenly crossed into India.
Sushant Singh, a senior fellow at the Center for Political Studies in New Delhi and a veteran of the Indian military, said the latest clash in Sikkim, an area where India expected to have a strategic advantage as it has more troops, suggests tensions it will grow as the earth thaws.
“If you see it in the light of everything that’s happening,” Mr Singh said, “it means we’re looking at a very tense situation next summer.”
Stephen Lee Myers contributed to reporting from Seoul, South Korea.