India and China accused each other of firing warning shots in the air along their disputed Himalayan border for the first time in more than four decades in a new sign of friction days after top officials on both sides agreed to defuse tensions.
Indian troops late Monday "illegally crossed the Line of Actual Control on the southern bank of Pangong Tso and fired warning shots against patrolling Chinese forces,” Senior Col. Zhang Shuili, a spokesman for the Western Theater Command of the People’s Liberation Army, said in a statement Tuesday. Chinese troops were "forced to take countermeasures to stabilize the situation,” Zhang said, without elaborating.
"The Indian behavior has severely violated agreements reached between two sides and escalated tensions,” Zhang said, urging the Indians to withdraw. "Such behavior could easily lead to miscalculation. It is a serious military provocation.”
The Indian Army, in a similar statement Tuesday, denied that its soldiers crossed the disputed border "or resorted to use of any aggressive means, including firing.”
"It is the PLA that has been blatantly violating agreements and carrying out aggressive maneuvers, while engagement at military, diplomatic and political level is in progress,” the Indian statement said, adding that it was Chinese troops who were trying to close-in to Indian forward positions along the boundary.
When "dissuaded” by Indian soldiers the Chinese troops "fired a few rounds in the air in an attempt to intimidate,” the Indian army said in a statement.
The last time Indian and Chinese troops opened fire was along their disputed border in the Arunachal Pradesh area of India in 1975. Military commanders on both sides have put in place protocols to ensure that troops don’t open fire and skirmishes are limited to physical altercations.
India’s foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has described the ongoing situation along the border as "very serious.” Speaking at an Indian Express event in New Delhi on Monday evening before the latest incident had been made public, he said: "If peace and tranquility on the border is not a given, then it cannot be that the rest of the relationship continues on the same basis.”
Jaishankar is likely to hold discussions with China’s foreign minister Wang Yi when he travels to Moscow for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting on Thursday. India’s foreign ministry spokesman didn’t respond to messages seeking comment on Tuesday.
Indian troops risk "being annihilated” if they use guns recklessly, Communist Party’s Global Times newspaper said Tuesday in commentary. Hu Xijin, the paper’s editor-in-chief, said on Twitter, "as far as I know, the PLA’s analysis is: The Indian side is underestimating China’s will as they did before 1962 and takes for granted that China dare not fight a war.”
The latest dispute came just days after Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh and his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Wei Fenghe, agreed to ease tensions after "frank and in-depth discussions” in Moscow.
If reports of warning shots being fired at the border are true "then China-India tensions are clearly escalating in spite of a bilateral agreement and numerous military-to-military dialogs aimed at de-escalation,” said Derek Grossman, researcher at the Washington-based RAND Corporation. "There are rumors that Chinese President Xi Jinping is unhappy and frustrated with how events have unfolded with India, and he may be looking to up the ante in order to turn Beijing’s fortunes around.”
"China has always viewed India as a lesser power,” Grossman said, "and a loss at the border, even if just symbolic and not territorial, would be a major and unacceptable psychological blow to China’s confidence and international image.”
Pangong Tso is a glacial lake at 14,000 feet (4,300 meters) in the western reaches of the contested Kashmir area and was the scene of fierce fighting in June that killed 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese troops.
Chinese-Indian relations have soured over each other’s actions along the 3,488 kilometer (2,162 mile) Line of Actual Control. Multiple rounds of high-level military talks failed to end the monthslong standoff.