NEW DELHI - Tensions between India and China have flared anew with the Indian Army saying it thwarted an attempt by Chinese troops to move to a higher vantage point along the banks of a massive lake that straddles both countries.
The incident, which occurred over the weekend, has opened a new front in the ongoing border stand-off in the Ladakh region, an area of snow-covered peaks and remote high-altitude valleys.
The confrontation took place on the southern bank of the picturesque Pangong Tso lake, which stretches for 135km from Tibet to Ladakh, an area which has been a major source of friction in the current flare-up on the border. One-third of the lake lies in India and the remainder in China, according to the official website of the Ladakh union territory.
A source with knowledge of the matter on the Indian side said Chinese troops had moved to secure a dominant position on the southern bank of the lake.
There was no pushing or shoving or any physical contact between the troops of the two countries, according to the source.
The Indian army, in an official statement, blamed the other side for raising tensions.
"On the Night of 29/30 August 2020, PLA troops violated the previous consensus arrived at during military and diplomatic engagements during the ongoing standoff in Eastern Ladakh and carried out provocative military movements to change the status quo," said Colonel Aman Anand, Indian Army spokesman in a statement.
He said that Indian troops had pre-empted and strengthened their positions, preventing their Chinese counterparts from moving forward.
"Indian troops pre-empted this PLA activity on the Southern Bank of Pangong Tso Lake, undertook measures to strengthen our positions and thwart Chinese intentions to unilaterally change facts on the ground."
A brigade commander-level, flag meeting is in progress at Chushul to resolve the issues, the statement said.
Many parts of the undemarcated border in the area between the two countries are the subject of dispute.
Tensions have flared up occasionally but the situation deteriorated considerably this year, culminating in a clash on June 15 in which 20 Indian soldiers were killed. The Chinese did not release casualty figures after the clash in the Galwan Valley in Ladakh.
Tensions had been building up since Apri, with India accusing China of changing the status quo at a number of spots in the border area. China, in turn, accused India of incursions.
Military and diplomatic talks between the two have been ongoing.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Monday (Aug 31) that People's Liberation Army border troops had never crossed the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and that both sides were engaged in consultations through diplomatic and military channels.
India views the current flare-up on the border as the worst since 1962, when it went to war with China.
"We have a very large number of Chinese forces and frankly, we are at a loss," Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar said in an interview with The Hindustan Times.
"I accept there are some differences in perceptions in the LAC. But there is again a clear understanding that neither side will attempt to unilaterally change the status quo," he added.
The border issue has impacted the economic relationship between the two Asian giants, with India moving to introduce additional rules for Chinese firms and to restrict their growth in areas such as telecommunications and power.
China is India's largest trading partner and bilateral trade hit US$92.68 billion (S$126.1 billion) in 2019.
Many analysts believe the two countries are still far apart on the border issue and say the situation remains dangerous.
"There is heavy deployment on either side. A spark would be detrimental for the situation along the border. I would say this is a very delicate, fragile and volatile situation, which can explode if it is not handled at the highest level," said Professor B.R. Deepak at the Jawaharlal Nehru University.
"The diplomatic and military solution may not be the way to resolve the situation, it needs intervention at the highest level. I think Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping need to activate the hotline. This has to be seen in tandem with the deteriorating relations in the field of trade and commerce," added Prof Deepak.
He also noted that there was little clarity about the situation in the public realm.
"The Chinese are saying we have disengaged. The Indian side is saying it doesn't reflect on the ground. There is no clarity. But it shows Chinese intention not to disengage. It's a long haul. Maybe they have to dig in even during winter," said Prof Deepak.
Some Indians maintain the situation is much more serious than what has been reported.
Journalist and former Indian Army officer Ajai Shukla tweeted: "Sunday's border violations by PLA in Pangong-Chushul sector are more serious than govt is admitting. China is steadily pushing the Line of Actual Control westwards. The Indian Army wants to stop 'dialogue' and take action. But New Delhi is desperate for a negotiated solution."