India and China said they wanted peace but blamed each other on Wednesday after soldiers of the two sides savagely fought each other with nail-studded clubs and stones on their Himalayan border, killing at least 20 Indian troops.
“We never provoke anyone,” 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.
Zhao said the overall situation at the border was stable and controllable.
Under an old agreement between the two nuclear-armed Asian giants, no shots are fired at the border, but there have been fisticuffs in recent years between border patrols.
According to Indian officials, soldiers were hit with clubs studded with nails and stones during a brawl that erupted in the remote Galwan Valley, high in the mountains where India’s Ladakh region borders the Aksai Chin region captured by China during the 1962 war.
The rival armies have been eyeball-to-eyeball at their border for decades, but it was the worst clash since 1967, five years after China humiliated India in that war.
Modi, a strident nationalist, was elected to a second five-year term in May 2019 following a campaign focused on national security after spiralling tensions with old enemy Pakistan, on India’s western border.
India’s gung-ho media and the opposition piled pressure on him to respond aggressively.