India PM Narendra Modi visits Himalayan border where troops clashed with China

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures as he interacts with soldiers during his visit to the Himalayan region of Ladakh on July 3, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits an army hospital in the Himalayan region of Ladakh on July 3, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a surprise trip to Ladakh on Friday (July 3) aimed at boosting troop morale and to send a message about India's defence preparedness, following the worst border flare-up with China in 45 years.

Twenty Indian soldiers were killed in a violent clash with Chinese soldiers on June 15 in the Galwan Valley in the Ladakh region. The Chinese have not released casualty figures.

Indian troops remain on high alert even as the two countries work out the contours of a complex disengagement on the disputed border.

The Prime Minister met troops in Nimu, which is on the banks of the Indus River and about 250km from where the deadly clash took place.

Mr Modi met the top leadership of the Indian Army and interacted with troops, the Prime Minister's Office said in a statement.

"The era of expansionism is gone. The world has moved on the path of development. The expansionist forces have ruined the world in the last century. But they have either been defeated or forgotten in history," Mr Modi said in an address to the troops in Nimu, noting that India had increased expenditure on infrastructure development in the border area by three times.

"Peace can never be brought by the weak. Power is the condition to bring peace. India is widening its powers on land, air and water, and this is for the welfare of mankind," he added.

Mr Modi noted that India was becoming stronger "in naval might, air power, space power and the strength of our army", with modernisation of weapons and upgrading of infrastructure enhancing defence capabilities "multifold".

Indian and Chinese troops have been in a face-off for two months at multiple locations along the Line of Actual Control, the de facto border in the region.

The two countries have also increased their presence along the border in at least four places in Ladakh - apart from the Galwan Valley - including Pangong Tso and Hot Springs.

Reports in the Indian media said China built additional structures in Pangong Tso and the Galwan Valley during the ongoing stand-off. Each side has accused the other of being the aggressor.

China's Foreign Ministry has responded to Mr Modi's visit to the disputed region.

"India and China are in communication and negotiations on lowering the temperatures through military and diplomatic channels. No party should engage in any action that may escalate the situation at this point," the ministry's spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a briefing.

Mr Modi's trip to Nimu served a triple purpose, said Professor Bharat Karnad, a national security expert at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.

"It sought to show support for, and to fire up the spirit of, the Indian forces deployed at these high altitudes, signalled to (Chinese) President Xi Jinping the Indian government and Indian Army's intention and resolve to fight back, and it reassured the Indian public that the country is not going to back down should Beijing scale up hostilities," he said.

Others saw the visit as a counter to the opposition Congress, which has criticised Mr Modi's handling of the crisis with China. The party has accused the government of hiding information about the severity and depth of Chinese incursions into Indian territory.

"There is a Chinese reaction. So probably it was posturing. It's a mix of everything, partly to counter opposition criticism. But after the incident (in the Galwan Valley), some kind of visit was required by the Prime Minister or a minister. It's good the Prime Minister himself came. It makes a lot of difference to the troops," said strategic affairs expert Phunchok Stobdan.

"Hopefully it's not interpreted as an escalatory kind of thing."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.