India-China Border Standoff: High in the Mountains, Thousands of Troops Go Toe-to-Toe

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Biggest Border Clashes in Decades a Sign of
Growing Friction Between World’s Most-Populous Countries

By Gordon Fairclough

KORZOK, India—It was dusk when the herdsmen reached their Himalayan village bearing ominous news: They had spotted dozens of camouflage-clad Chinese soldiers inside territory India considers its own.

Indian security forces poured in, beginning a face-off last month that grew to involve more than 1,000 troops on each side at an altitude of roughly 15,000 feet, according to Indian officials, making it the biggest border confrontation between the two nations in decades.

The mountain standoff lasted weeks and at times involved tense shoving-and-shouting matches, according to Indian border-patrol troopers who participated. Both armies called in helicopters. The scale and duration of the clash are signs of mounting friction between the world’s two most-populous countries.

“The Chinese have become more aggressive,” said Jayadeva Ranadé, a member of India’s National Security Advisory Board. “They were trying to send a message that they can pressure us at a time and place of their choosing.”

China-India-Border-DisputesBeijing says its forces didn’t cross the “line of actual control”—a boundary that has separated the two sides since a 1962 border war and whose exact location remains a subject of bitter dispute—and played down the encounter’s significance.

Without a clearly demarcated border, “it is quite natural for some incidents to happen,” Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Col. Geng Yansheng said afterward at a news briefing in Beijing.

Locals were caught in the middle. “Everybody was worried and asking if we should stay or go,” said Gyaltsan Tsering, the headman of Chumar, a village near the standoff. “We were afraid hostilities would break out.”

Much of the global attention paid to China’s territorial assertiveness has focused on maritime conflicts in the East China Sea and the South China Sea that have stoked tensions with Japan, the U.S. and some Southeast Asian nations.

But China is also making a less-noticed push in the west to enforce claims along its 2,200-mile (3,400-kilometer) frontier with India. India says the number of what it describes as Chinese “transgressions” across the two countries’ ill-defined boundary has climbed sharply—to more than 400 last year from 213 in 2011.

At times the disputes have revolved around issues as minor as the location of a hut to shelter herders. Many details of the most-recent standoff, based on Wall Street Journal interviews near where the incident occurred, haven’t previously been reported.

China’s Defense Ministry didn’t respond to questions about India’s figures and declined to say if Indian troops cross into the Chinese side. Both countries say their forces don’t leave what they consider to be their own territory.

India’s new government has pledged a tougher foreign-policy stance. Last week, Home Minister Rajnath Singh said India would build 54 new outposts along the eastern section of the India-China border and invest $28.5 million in other infrastructure to catch up with construction on the Chinese side.

Although New Delhi wants to resolve boundary disputes through dialogue, “peace cannot come at the cost of honor,” he said.

On Thursday, a spokesman for China’s Defense Ministry, Yang Yujun, reacted, saying: “We hope the Indian side can strive to uphold peace and calm in the border region, and not take any actions that complicate the situation.”

The long-running quarrel hasn’t involved armed conflict in recent years and both sides say they are determined to keep the peace. But analysts say more encounters between the two sides’ armed forces raise the risk of accidental escalation.

Defense analysts attribute the increasing tensions in part to the fact that both sides have built roads and other infrastructure that ease the movement of troops and supplies, despite the border areas’ inhospitable geography.

China has also shown greater willingness to press its territorial claims and show its displeasure with its neighbors as its economic and military power has increased.

The two countries have long harbored strategic misgivings about each other. India resents China’s close relations with rival Pakistan and its growing influence with India’s other neighbors. China says its interests in the region are commercial, not military.

For its part, Beijing is wary of the emergence of a strategic partnership among India, the U.S. and Japan, which some in Beijing see as aimed at hindering China’s rise. India’s decision to let the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama use the country as a base also rankles with China.

While Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants Chinese investment to help revive India’s economy, he hasn’t shied away from steps that could anger Beijing. On Tuesday, India said it would sell navy vessels to Vietnam, which has its own territorial feud with China, after earlier signing an energy-exploration deal with Hanoi.

Today’s border situation has its roots in the fact that for centuries, the sparsely inhabited belt of mountains between what are now India and China existed as a sort of buffer zone between empires. Since a brief 1962 border war between the countries that left several thousand soldiers dead or missing, tension has waxed and waned.

China asserts claims on India’s Arunachal Pradesh state, while India claims a region it calls Aksai Chin that connects Tibet with Xinjiang in northwest China. More than a dozen rounds of talks since 2003 haven’t made much visible progress toward a settlement.

Now, local leaders from Indian border areas say they believe China is making a creeping advance, in some cases forcing herders off traditional grazing grounds. Assessing the situation on China’s side is more difficult, because China limits the access of foreign journalists to militarily sensitive border areas.

Chinese troops “come some meters, or a kilometer, at a time,” said Gurmet Dorjay, a member of India’s Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council. “Our side doesn’t push back. That’s how you lose ownership.”

Kiren Rijiju, a minister of state in India’s Home Ministry, said Mr. Modi’s government would “respond appropriately” to incursions.

Villages like Chumar in the arid, high-altitude region of Ladakh, part of India’s northern Jammu and Kashmir state, are on the front line.

A settlement of stone and whitewashed, mud-brick houses and corrals for livestock, Chumar is home to about 35 families who eke out a living raising goats, sheep and other animals. They earn money selling cashmere wool.

People speak a Tibetan language similar to that spoken across the border in China and practice Tibetan Buddhism. Prayer flags flutter over the village and locals worship at a nearby monastery.

Residents say they are Indian citizens and would leave if the area falls under the control of Chinese authorities, whom they view as hostile to their religion and ways of living.

Locals used to have little contact with China’s military, said Mr. Tsering, the headman, who is his 40s. That changed in recent years, he said.

Chinese soldiers on horseback entered areas around Chumar multiple times in the summer of 2013, locals said. This spring, Mr. Tsering and other local leaders said, several herdsmen from Chumar were attacked by about a dozen mounted Chinese soldiers.

The soldiers beat them with whips in an area near a group of generations-old Buddhist monuments, said Messrs. Tsering and Dorjay. “Nobody’s been challenging them, so they just keep coming,” said Mr. Tsering.

China’s Defense Ministry declined to comment.

Then came the September standoff, ahead of a visit to India by Chinese President Xi Jinping .

Indian security forces discovered Chinese soldiers using heavy earth-moving equipment to build a dirt road into territory India considers its own. Dozens of Chinese soldiers also took up positions at an area of high ground known to India’s military as 30R, near Chumar.

India has long considered 30R to be on its side of the line of actual control and Indian forces use it to monitor Chinese operations.

Convoys of olive-drab troop trucks rushed in Indian reinforcements and China sent in more troops. Forces—for the most part armed with assault rifles and pistols—at times pushed, shoved and shouted at each other, participants said.

“This is the biggest confrontation I’ve ever seen,” said one veteran Indo-Tibetan Border Police officer, who declined to be named. “It’s obvious they want to come farther.”

Chinese officers showed maps to their Indian counterparts indicating that the 30R hill and Buddhist stupas closer to the Chumar monastery were in Chinese territory, the officer said.

“That is a new claim. Next year they’ll be back with a map that moves the border even further,” he said. “They keep changing the maps and intruding again and again.”

Ma Jiali, an India watcher at the China Reform Forum, a think tank affiliated with the Communist Party’s Central Party School, said India’s construction of outposts around Chumar, where India’s army and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police have bases, had forced China’s hand.

“China didn’t provoke the latest standoff,” Mr. Ma said. He blamed India for “creating a new point of contention and forcing the Chinese side into taking action to defend its position.”

A few years ago, India built a paved road to the Chumar area and an observation tower. During the standoff, China also objected to what Indian officials described as a hut, erected to shelter patrols, that India says is within its territory. The Chinese in the past have also objected to a shelter for herders near another village.

It took several rounds of talks between military commanders and a meeting of the countries’ foreign ministers before the two sides pulled back.

Such face-offs could become more common as India moves to close the gap with China in terms of border roads and infrastructure. China has made big investments in border regions and connected Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, to the country’s east coast by rail.

India is making its own infrastructure push. In the Ladakh region in late September, crews were blasting away the side of a mountain to widen a road to border areas and doing other construction work. The military has started using airfields near contested border areas to spotlight its ability to airlift reinforcements.

“India is trying to catch up,” said C. Raja Mohan, a foreign-policy specialist at the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi think tank. “Both militaries are now operating much closer to the border. That could mean more incidents and more intense incidents.”

— Chun Han Wong in Beijing contributed to this article.

Write to Gordon Fairclough at gordon.fairclough@wsj.com

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