Multiple Indian media outlets reported on Thursday that the Indian military had expanded its control of mountains on the Chinese border that Beijing claims as its own following an exchange that resulted in the first gunshots fired on the border in 45 years.
Chinese media predicted that high-level diplomatic and military talks between the two nations this week directly addressing the tensions may be the “last chance” to avoid war.
Tensions have flared on the mutual border shared by India’s Ladakh region and Chinese-occupied Tibet this summer following the deadliest clash there in over half a century, occurring in June. On that occasion, Indian officials say they acted to dislodge a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) unit that had illegally established itself on Indian territory. The Communist Party of China insisted that PLA troops were not present on Indian territory and that the Indian forces, not the Chinese, were illegally present in the wrong country.
Last week, Indian troops reportedly intercepted another contingent of an estimated 200 PLA forces. Indian officials said they acted preemptively when they noted that the Chinese troops were equipped with tents and surveillance equipment, expecting them to similarly establish an illegal base in India. The exchange resulted in the Indians, not the Chinese, establishing a new presence, this time on a mountaintop overlooking Pangong Tso, a lake on the Ladakh-Tibet border.
By Thursday, Indian media outlets claimed that Indian troops were now present throughout mountaintops surrounding Pangong Tso. Chinese troops have also reportedly established themselves on some peaks, but the reports claim the Indians are on the higher peaks, meaning they can monitor the Chinese with little intervention.
“India has occupied several dominating heights close to China’s existing positions at finger 4, north bank of Pangong Lake. The development gives the Indian Army an edge over the Chinese even as PLA troops continue to indulge in provocative actions,” India’s WIO News reported on Thursday.
The Times of India reported the same, also citing unnamed sources, adding that Chinese PLA troops had also established bases around the lake, but claimed they were not in an advantageous position over the Indians.
The strategic positions each have taken means opposing soldiers are standing yards apart in the steep Himalayan terrain, Reuters asserted.
“At a forward position near the Rezang La mountain pass, Indian and Chinese troops were only around 200 meters [656 feet] apart,” Reuters asserted, citing unnamed Indian sources who described the atmosphere there as “tense.” The sources told Reuters that, at the time of publishing, the soldiers had remained on their sides of the border.
For decades, both China and India agreed to military rules of engagement that prohibited the use of firearms on the border. India changed those rules in June after a brawl in which PLA forces reportedly used rocks and sticks wrapped in barbed wire to kill soldiers left at least 20 Indian troops dead. Indian authorities claim China lost twice that number of men, but Beijing has rejected that tally and refused to publish a true casualty count.
Both India and China accused each other on Monday of firing at opposing troops following India’s takeover of the Pangong Tso mountaintop last week. The Chinese claimed India fired warning shots, which India admitted to but claimed that Chinese forces shot first. Indian media later published photos, all from unnamed sources, alleging to show PLA soldiers on the border on Monday, wielding machetes, spears, and rudimentary rifles.
The live fire means that troops have set a precedent for the use of firearms on the border for the first time in half a century.
Chinese media loudly advertised new military technology set to debut on the border this week. According to the South China Morning Post, the state-run CCTV broadcast a report claiming that PLA special forces had organized parachute training in the region to expand their ability to handle the terrain.
“Without disclosing the date or location of the training, CCTV said that so far more than 300 officers and soldiers of the special operations brigade had successfully carried out their first jump on the Tibetan plateau,” the Post reported, “and the training would expand to more than 1,000 troops to ‘lay a good foundation’ for armed parachuting and multi-parachute training in high-altitude areas.”
The Post noted that CCTV did not mention India or the ongoing tensions in the post.
The Global Times also advertised what it called “a new combat system that integrates armored vehicles and drone swarms” on Thursday. Rather than mentioning a threat from India, however, the Global Times claimed the new systems were necessary in light of threats from America, a close Indian ally.
India’s defense minister, Rajnath Singh, also debuted new military technology on Thursday: ten French-made Rafale fighter jets, part of a 36-aircraft purchase that Singh described as a “game-changer” for the Indian Air Force.
“Rafale induction is a big and stern message for the entire world, especially to those eyeing our sovereignty,” WIO News paraphrased Singh as saying.
To prevent further escalations, the top diplomats of both nations — Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Indian Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar — are meeting Thursday in Moscow to discuss an end to the tensions. Both are in Russia for a meeting of foreign ministers from countries belonging to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, according to China’s state-run Global Times newspaper. Both sides have stated they expect to discuss the Ladakh border at the meeting.
“Chinese experts said this could be the last chance for the senior officials of the two sides to peacefully settle border tensions before winter,” the Global Times asserted. “If the meeting fails to reach a positive result, or if the two sides cannot execute the agreement at the front line, this could be a dangerous signal that China and India are unlikely to solve the crisis peacefully, analysts said.”
India’s Zee News also reported Thursday that Chinese and Indian Corps commanders agreed to schedule talks, though they have not yet chosen a date. The outlet cited an unnamed “government source” to report that ranking officers had “interacted” in an unspecified way on Thursday simply to maintain communication, but that it had not resulted in any substantive agreement.