2 Years After Deadly Fistfights, India and China Pull Back From Border

SRINAGAR, Kashmir — Their soldiers have fought with fists, rocks and wooden clubs along a disputed frontier high in the Himalayas. Both India and China have said they don’t want a war, but the brawls led them to move thousands of soldiers to inhospitable terrain.

Now, the two nuclear-armed neighbors appear to be moving toward de-escalation after a conflict that endangered regional stability, with officials from both sides agreeing to pull back soldiers from friction points along their disputed border in the Ladakh region.

“The Indian and Chinese troops in the area of Gogra-Hot Springs have begun to disengage in a coordinated and planned way, which is conducive to the peace and tranquillity in the border areas,” India’s Defense Ministry said on Thursday in a statement that the Chinese government also issued in almost identical form.

The border tensions escalated after India unilaterally stripped its part of the disputed Kashmir region of its semiautonomous status in August 2019. China, which also controls a portion of Kashmir, started a troop buildup along its side of the border with Ladakh, which had been part of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir before New Delhi split the region. (Pakistan also controls part of Kashmir.)

Beijing called India’s decision to cement its control over Kashmir “illegal and invalid.” India responded by saying it was an internal matter.

Months later, in June 2020, Indian and Chinese soldiers squared off after China’s military moved tens of thousands of troops and artillery to disputed areas, including the strategic Galwan Valley. Fighting between the two sides left 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese troops dead in the worst border clash between the two nations since 1967.

Not a single shot was fired, following a longstanding code against using firearms, but the soldiers went at each other with fists, some possibly studded with nails or wrapped in barbed wire.

Since a major war in 1962, China and India have largely contained disputes through talks and treaties. Over the decades, there have been flare-ups along the 2,100-mile frontier between the two countries, which is referred to as the Line of Actual Control and is not well defined. But they did not result in a major escalation.

After that changed dramatically two years ago, the two sides looked to ease tensions, holding 16 rounds of commander-level talks, the last one in July.

After the announcement of the pullback in Gogra-Hot Springs, India’s Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement on Friday that “the two sides have agreed to cease forward deployments in this area in a phased, coordinated and verified manner, resulting in the return of the troops of both sides to their respective areas.”

Mao Ning, a spokeswoman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said at a regular briefing on Friday afternoon: “China firmly safeguards its sovereignty and territorial integrity. This position has not changed in any way. It is very firm.”

She added: “China is committed to resolving differences through dialogue and consultation. This is why we have been in communication with India on border issues through diplomatic and military channels.”

Deependra Singh Hooda, a retired lieutenant general who led India’s Northern Command, which covers Kashmir and part of the Chinese border, warned that the announcement had not completely ended the conflict.

He said that there were places where Chinese soldiers remained in place, and that if Indian soldiers were stopped from patrolling their own areas, that implied those areas were under the control of China.

Still, “this is a positive development,” Mr. Hooda said, adding that while the full nature of the agreement was unclear, “at least troops have gotten separated.”

The announcement came a week before the leaders of India and China will attend the annual Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit, meeting in Samarkand, the capital of Uzbekistan.

It will be the first time that Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and Xi Jinping, China’s leader, will be under one roof since the deadly clash.

Both Mr. Xi and Mr. Modi increasingly risked allowing the conflict to spin out of control as they took increasingly assertive postures, moving thousands of troops into the disputed region. Indian politicians, including Mr. Modi, have made several visits to the Ladakh region. During one, Mr. Modi donned a military jacket to address soldiers.

As the standoff has grown, India has increased its focus on Ladakh, spending millions of dollars to build roads along its side of the Chinese border, particularly in areas where its positioning was weak and China had a terrain advantage.

Among the remaining contention points between the two armies is an eastern region called the Depsang Plains. Military analysts said that the Chinese Army was not allowing Indian troops to patrol in that area, even though they have done so for decades. While India’s military is already stretched thin, said Saurav Jha, editor in chief of the Delhi Defense Review, it still needs to keep up a permanent patrol to deter China.

Konchok Stanzin, a local politician from eastern Ladakh, said the announcement would ease worries among people in the region. But local shepherds have lost grazing areas as the land has become buffer zones, he said.

“If there is complete disengagement, people will feel good about it,” he said. “Peace is important for emotional well-being of the people.”

Claire Fu contributed research.


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