In the worst border fighting in nearly 60 years, Indian and Chinese troops clashed in the hotly disputed Ladakh region located high in the Himalayas. At least 20 Indian soldiers were killed in the fighting; Chinese casualties are unknown. Both sides accuse the other of violating the “Line of Actual Control” (LAC), the de facto border between the two countries.

The Chinese and Indian soldiers were not armed, in compliance with the provisions of a previously agreed upon pact aimed at stopping the escalation of any border skirmish to all-out conflict. Thus, the fighting was of the Stone Age variety: two sides fought for nearly six hours with fists, rocks, iron bars, and whatever weapon they could pick up from the ground. Most of the dead were either bludgeoned to death or pushed off the high cliffs. 

This latest fight began, according to unnamed Indian military sources, when an Indian Army patrol ran into Chinese PLA troops in a steep section of the region from where they believed the Chinese had withdrawn after a disengagement agreement reached on June 6

The two sides began fighting on the narrow ridgeline in sub-zero temperatures, engaging in hand-to-hand combat. The Indian patrol’s commanding officer was then pushed off the ledge and fell to his death in the gorge below. 

The Indian troops called up reinforcements from a base two miles to the rear and the fighting escalated with about 600 troops involved. 

Both sides blamed each other for the fighting. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs claimed that China had unilaterally changed both the status quo on the border and the rules of engagement. The Chinese accused Indian forces of carrying out “provocative attacks” on its troops yet without offering more details nor giving the number of the Chinese casualties. Indian military spokesmen, speaking on the condition of anonymity, claimed that up to 50 Chinese soldiers were killed in the clash. Chinese television news made no mention of it. 

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, said that China had strongly protested this latest incident but that Beijing remained committed to maintaining “peace and tranquility” along the disputed border region.

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“But what is shocking is that on June 15, the Indian troops seriously violated the consensus of the two sides, crossed the border illegally twice, and carried out provocative attacks on Chinese personnel, resulting in serious physical conflicts between the two border forces,” Zhao said.

The area in contention is Aksai Chin. China has claimed it as part of Xinjiang province, while India claims it is part of Ladakh. Until last year the region was part of the semi-autonomous state of Jammu and Kashmir but was controlled by India. This disputed territory had been under Indian control ever since the aftermath of the 1947 war with Pakistan.

China wants control of the area because it allows access to Pakistan. China has invested more than $60 billion on the economic corridor with Pakistan as part of China’s Belt and Road initiative.  

However, India finished a new all-weather road a year ago that runs very close to the LAC. This road is used to support troops along the border, allowing them to be resupplied by road from the highest airfield in the world at  Daulat Beg Oldi.

The entire region is a rugged, high, snow-covered mountain range where the average altitude is 14,000 feet. It is bitterly cold, even in the summertime.

The two sides went to open warfare over this area in 1962. Thousands on each side were killed in the brutal fighting. The LAC came about as a result of the 1962 clashes. The last time there were fatalities in the region was in 1975, when Chinese troops killed four Indian soldiers in an ambush in the Twang region of northeastern India.