India and China say they want peace, but blame each other for a clash in which soldiers savagely fought each other with nail-studded clubs and stones on their Himalayan border.
The death of 20 Indian soldiers on Tuesday marked the most serious conflict between the two nuclear-armed neighbours in decades.
“We never provoke anyone,” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on national television, referring to Monday’s hand-to-hand fighting.
“There should be no doubt that India wants peace, but if provoked, India will provide an appropriate response.”
In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the clash erupted after Indian soldiers “crossed the line, acted illegally, provoked and attacked the Chinese, resulting in both sides engaging in serious physical conflict and injury and death”.
He said he did not know of any Chinese casualties, although Indian media quoted officials as saying at least 45 people were dead or injured on the Chinese side.
India wants peace but will retaliate if provoked, says PM Modi on border tensions with China.
— BloombergQuint (@BloombergQuint) June 17, 2020
Mr Zhao said the overall situation at the border was stable and controllable.
The tension between the two countries has been brewing across the disputed border for weeks now, with thousands of troops from the two Asian powerhouses facing off only hundreds of metres away from each other.
At its core, it is a fight over land.
The superpowers have been arguing for decades over the high-altitude territory.
Most of the largely uninhabited area is not marked on maps.
Normally, the pair send patrols along the Line of Actual Control, but rarely has this ever ended up in serious altercations.
In 1962, the Sino-Indian war over the disputed territory set back diplomatic relationships.
China claims 90,000 square kilometres of territory in India’s north west, but India says China only occupies 38,000 square kilometres.
Tensions between the two countries are also inflamed by the Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet in 1959 during an aborted uprising against Chinese rule, and now resides in the northern Indian town of Dharamshala.
Also, China’s backing of Pakistan on the issue of Kashmir plus India’s refusal to participate in its multibillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, also get in the way of the two countries having a stable relationship.
But this flare-up has been over a road.
India is building a road through Ladakh’s Galwan Valley, connecting the region to an airstrip.
Experts say India is sending the message it wants to assert control over the territory.
It’s a move that has upset China.
In return, it deployed troops and built infrastructure along the disputed territory, which has prompted Sino-Indian fistfights to break out.
In a bizarre move for 21st-century warfare, both sides seem to have honoured a de facto border rule that no firearms are allowed to be used.
Instead, they fought each other with fists, rocks, and wooden clubs.
The concern is what happens next.
In recent days, generals from the two countries have been involved in talks designed to de-escalate the tensions, but Tuesday’s deadly incident has inflamed tempers.
“This is extremely, extremely serious. This is going to vitiate whatever dialogue was going on,” former Indian army commander DS Hooda said, commenting on Monday’s clash.