BEIJING -- China’s foreign minister demanded Wednesday that India punish those behind deadly border clashes between their forces this week, and warned New Delhi not to underestimate Beijing's determination to safeguard what it considers its sovereign territory.
Wang Yi’s comments came in a telephone call with his Indian counterpart, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, two days after soldiers from the sides engaged in fighting along their disputed border in the Himalayan Mountains.
Twenty Indian troops were reportedly killed, while it was not clear whether China suffered any casualties. Wang said China demanded India conduct a thorough investigation and “harshly punish” those responsible.
“The Indian side would best not make an incorrect judgement of the situation, would best not underestimate China’s strong determination to safety its sovereign territory," Wang said in a statement issued by the foreign ministry.
He repeated China’s claims that India was solely responsible for the conflict, saying its forces had crossed the Line of Actual Control that divides the thousands of troops from the sides deployed in the area.
The statement said Jaishankar explained India’s position, but gave no details, and said New Delhi was committed to talks on reducing tensions.
Indian security forces said neither side fired any shots in the clash in the Ladakh region late Monday. It was the first deadly confrontation on the disputed border between India and China since 1975. Some officials said the soldiers were carrying anti-riot gear rather than weapons.
China has not said if any of its troops were injured or killed.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the country should be proud that its soldiers died while fighting.
“Their sacrifices won't go to waste," he said. “For us, the unity and sovereignty of the country is the most important thing. India wants peace, but when provoked, it is capable of giving a fitting reply, be it any kind of situation.”
Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh tweeted that the loss of soldiers is “deeply disturbing and painful.”
A group of protesters gathered Wednesday near the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi, India's capital, condemning the killing of the soldiers and demanding a ban on Chinese goods. They carried placards with crossed photographs of Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Chinese army.
A small group of retired Indian army personnel also marched close to the embassy with placards reading “Chinese army down down.” They were detained by police.
While experts said the two nations were unlikely to head to war, they also believe easing tensions quickly will be difficult.
“This will likely be a watershed moment in India-China relations and the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific,” said Abraham Denmark, Asia program director at The Wilson Center. “We’ve already seen the deadliest clash on the China-India border in over 50 years, both countries are led by men who have embraced nationalism, and both countries are facing tremendous domestic and international upheaval as a result of COVID-19 and other long-standing problems.”
The main questions now are if either side can find a path to deescalation and whether India’s allies such as the United States will help.
“It is a highly volatile and dangerous situation between two nationalistic, nuclear powers at a time when American influence has badly diminished,” Denmark said.
An editorial published Wednesday in the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party newspaper, said India was being encouraged by the U.S., which has been steadily building relations with India’s military.
“The arrogance and recklessness of the Indian side is the main reason for the consistent tensions along China-India borders,” the editorial said, adding that China “does not and will not create conflicts, but it fears no conflicts either.”
China claims about 90,000 square kilometers (35,000 square miles) of territory in India’s northeast, while India says China occupies 38,000 square kilometers (15,000 square miles) of its territory in the Aksai Chin Plateau in the Himalayas, a contiguous part of the Ladakh region.
India unilaterally declared Ladakh a federal territory while separating it from disputed Kashmir in August 2019. China was among the handful of countries to strongly condemn the move, raising it at international forums including the U.N. Security Council.
Thousands of soldiers on both sides have faced off over a month along a remote stretch of the 3,380-kilometer (2,100-mile) Line of Actual Control, the border established following a war between India and China in 1962 that resulted in an uneasy truce.
The tense standoff started in early May, when Indian officials said that Chinese soldiers crossed the boundary at three different points, erecting tents and guard posts and ignoring verbal warnings to leave. That triggered shouting matches, stone-throwing and fistfights, much of it replayed on television news channels and social media.
The Indian army said three soldiers died initially in Monday’s clash. The 17 others died after being “critically injured in the line of duty and exposed to sub-zero temperatures in the high-altitude terrain,” it said in a statement Tuesday that did not disclose the nature of the soldiers’ injuries.
The troops fought each other with fists and rocks, Indian security officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose the information.
The United Nations urged both sides “to exercise maximum restraint.”
“We are concerned about reports of violence and deaths at the Line of Actual Control between India and China,” U.N. associate spokesperson Eri Kaneko said. “We take positive note of reports that the two countries have engaged to de-escalate the situation.”
Vivek Katju, a retired Indian diplomat, said the violence represented a dramatic departure from the four-decade status quo.
“The political class and the security class as a whole will have to do very serious thinking about the road ahead,” he said.
This story has been corrected to show a reference to 17 injured is a description of how some fatalities occurred and not a report of more casualties.
Sharma reported from New Delhi.