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India And China See Most Violent Clash In Decades At Himalayan Border

NOEL KING, HOST:

Why did Chinese and Indian troops fight in a remote valley along their shared border? This happened high up in the Himalayas, where thousands of troops from both countries have been stationed for decades. At least 20 Indian troops died in the fighting. And China won't disclose how many casualties it suffered. For some explanation, we've got NPR's Emily Feng in Beijing and NPR's India correspondent Lauren Frayer on the line. Lauren, this is a very specific part of the world, a very remote part of the world. What's this place like? And what does India say happened there?

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Right. So Noel, this is at 14,000 feet up in the Himalayas, subzero temperatures. There's almost no civilian population there. And so that we have to rely on the two militaries to tell us what happened. And they have different versions of the story. Both say the other started it. We do know it was hand-to-hand combat with stones and wooden clubs because they have this agreement not to carry guns in that border zone. An Indian Army colonel is among the dead.

India has been building a road in the area that could be used to deploy future troops more quickly. China may see that as a provocation. Both sides have been pouring in more troops and building more infrastructure there recently. And so that's led to some scuffles in recent weeks. There have also been some high-level military talks, as recently as last weekend, actually, to try to defuse tensions. But, you know, the opposite appears to have happened.

KING: OK. So that's from India's perspective. Emily, you're in Beijing. What is China saying about what happened?

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: China says it bears no responsibility for what happened. And it says it was Indian soldiers who first crossed into this no man's land that separates the troops stationed in this valley. Yesterday night, China's military put out a statement in which they accused Indian troops of, quote, "deliberately launching a provocative attack." And they acknowledge that tensions had been simmering for a while. I spoke to a retired colonel in China's army - his name is Yue Gang - about why he thinks this clash happened.

YUE GANG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: He said it was inevitable, given tensions, that people were going to die in a border clash between India and China. And he put the blame on Indian Prime Minister Modi, who, as a leader, he said, had taken a more aggressive, expansionary approach. Colonel Yue believes, like many people in China, that India provoked this clash so they could score points with more nationalistic voters in India.

And as Lauren said, we don't have that many details about what actually happened. Unlike India, China has been very reluctant to share any information. I asked the foreign minister today why they can't give us casualty numbers. And they said, verbatim, they didn't need to.

KING: Why is this so sensitive in China?

FENG: Most likely it's because Chinese soldiers were killed in the clash. And that's an embarrassing and very rare occurrence. China's military last night admitted that there were casualties in general stemming from this clash. But they didn't say which side in which they occurred. China also says they're not releasing casualty numbers because they don't want to infuriate their own citizens. They want to de-escalate.

KING: Lauren, I want to ask you about what is at stake for India here because we're talking about the world's two most populous countries. And both of them have nuclear weapons.

FRAYER: India is worried about its own territorial integrity. I mean, it doesn't want to lose land on this border to China. China has been pretty aggressive in India's backyard. China's a close friend and investor in Pakistan, which is India's archrival next door. China's building ports and infrastructure in places nearby like Sri Lanka, Nepal, across Southeast Asia and even farther afield. India is the world's largest democracy. Washington sees it as a buffer to China's influence in the region. And if India suffers a stinging defeat at the hands of the Chinese military, really challenges that idea.

KING: So what is the Indian government saying?

FRAYER: So Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a coronavirus meeting today. And at the start, he observed a moment of silence for these slain soldiers. He also made his first public comments about this clash.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER NARENDRA MODI: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: He said India wants peace but that, if provoked, India is capable of giving a, quote, "befitting reply." And he said India would never compromise its integrity and sovereignty. So that sounds pretty tough. But it may be aimed more at his domestic audience, actually, because here's what it sounds like when you turn on the TV in India today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR: Viewers, devious China - devious China has broken the peace after 45 years. The consequences are grim.

FRAYER: So that's a TV news anchor sounding pretty angry. There's a hashtag trending today, #ChinaGetOut. So there's a lot of emotion in India right now. The Indian Army, however, has been very measured, urging calm. And it actually noted that it was the cold that killed the majority of these troops. They were wounded in battle. But then they succumbed to subzero temperatures is what the army said, so technically not killed by the Chinese soldiers. The army made that distinction and so seems to be trying to de-escalate here.

KING: OK. So in India, at least at the government level, an attempt to de-escalate. Emily, what is China's government saying? What are they telegraphing?

FENG: China is trying to de-escalate as fast as possible. First of all, the average Chinese person is not paying attention to this clash. It's simply just not a story in China. There's been no coverage in state media beyond this military statement. And second, China's foreign ministry had said today that Beijing is maintaining close communications with India and that they've both agreed dialogue is the way forward.

KING: OK. NPR's Emily Feng and Lauren Frayer. Thank you so much.

FENG: Thanks, Noel.

FRAYER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.