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Why are India and China sparring at the border? (July 2020)
02:15 - Source: CNN
New Delhi CNN  — 

China and India have accused each other’s troops of firing warning shots during a confrontation Monday on their disputed border in the Himalayas, a marked escalation in tensions between the two nuclear powers.

The incident is reportedly the first time shots have been fired along the Sino-Indian border in more than four decades, but both sides have blamed the other for violating bilateral agreements and taking “provocative” actions.

In a statement on Monday night, a spokesperson for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s Western Theater Command said Indian troops “illegally crossed” the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the loosely defined demarcation line that separates the two countries, and entered the Shenpao mountain region near the southern bank of Pangong Tso, a strategically located lake in the western section of the 2,100 mile (3,379 kilometer) long border.

“The Indian troops brazenly fired warning shots at Chinese border patrols troops who came up to negotiate, and the Chinese border troops were forced to take countermeasures to stabilize the situation,” said Senior Colonel Zhang Shuili, the Chinese military spokesperson, without specifying what those “countermeasures” were.

Calling it a “serious military provocation,” Zhang asked the India side to “immediately stop dangerous actions … strictly restrain frontline troops and seriously investigate and punish personnel who fired shots to ensure similar incidents do not occur again.”

On Tuesday, the Indian army rejected China’s accusations and called the statement “an attempt to mislead their domestic and international audience.”

It said the Indian troops had “exercised great restraint and behaved in a mature and responsible manner,” and instead accused the Chinese military of “blatantly violating agreements and carrying out aggressive maneuvers.”

Mountains rise over the Pangong Tso Lake on October 5, 2012 near Leh in Ladakh, India.

According to India, it was the Chinese troops who attempted to “close in” on one of the forward positions held by Indian soldiers along the border. When dissuaded by Indian troops, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers fired “a few rounds in the air in an attempt to intimidate” them, a statement from the Indian military said.

“At no stage has the Indian Army transgressed across the LAC or resorted to use of any aggressive means, including firing,” the statement said.

“First shots” in decades

This is the believed to be first time shots have been fired along the Sino-Indian border since 1975, when four Indian soldiers were killed by Chinese troops in a remote pass on the eastern end of the border, according to Harsh V. Pant, a professor of International Relations at King’s College, London.

On Tuesday, Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, confirmed the incident was the first shooting along the border in 45 years and claimed that “the Indian side fired shots to the Chinese border troops first.”

“The tranquility is interrupted by the shots. The Chinese side always stress that both sides should peacefully settle our differences through dialogue and consultation,” Zhao said at a news conference.

China and India have been sparring over the area that surrounds the Pangong Tso Lake since the two fought a bloody border war in 1962. The Line of Actual Control, which passes through the lake, was established in the wake of the original conflict. Though it shows up on maps, India and China do not agree on its precise location and both regularly accuse the other of overstepping it, or seeking to expand their territory.

In 1996, the two countries signed an agreement which states that neither side shall open fire within 2 kilometers (1.24 miles) from the LAC to “prevent dangerous military activities.”

That was among a series of agreements signed by China and India since 1993 to “keep forces at the minimum level at the border” and “shape the behavior of troops,” said Indian’s Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.

“If these are not observed, then it raises very, very important questions. At this moment, I note that this very serious situation has been going on since the beginning of May,” he said at an event on Monday.

Both sides adhered to the agreement in a violent face-off in the Galwan Valley not far from Pangong Tso in June. During that dispute, soldiers fought with fists, stones and nail-studded bamboo poles in a bloody brawl that left at least 20 Indian soldiers killed. China has never acknowledged any casualties from that clash.

The situation was temporarily resolved after the two sides engaged in talks and withdrew soldiers. But tensions flared again last week when Delhi and Beijing accused each other’s troops of carrying out provocative actions near Pangong Tso.

Du Youkang, a professor in South Asia studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, said the warning shots were a “serious” escalation of the border dispute.

“Both sides have had a consensus, knowing that things could blow up once shots are fired. Even firing into the air should not have been allowed,” he said.

Monday’s incident comes as both sides are engaged in high-level talks in a bid to deescalate tensions. Last Friday, the Chinese and Indian defense ministers met on the sidelines at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Moscow, and the two countries’ foreign ministers are scheduled to meet there on Thursday.

But Pant, the professor at King’s College, London, said he believed tensions on the Sino-Indian border will become a “new normal.”

“The trust has completely disappeared from the relationship … The LAC is going to be extremely volatile and it will remain so for the foreseeable future unless a permanent resolution to the problem is found,” he said.

“Because the older paradigm, the older frameworks, have completely fallen apart and there are no new frameworks at the moment as the two nations are struggling to come to terms with this reality.”

CNN’s Manveena Suri and Shawn Deng contributed to reporting.