Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping leave after a group picture during BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) Summit in Benaulim, in the western state of Goa, India, October 16, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui/File Photo

An attempt by about 15 soldiers of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to enter the northern bank of Pangong Lake in Ladakh on Tuesday was the latest twist of the two-month standoff between India and China on the Dhoklam plateau.

Although the situation in the lake area was quickly defused, things may spin out of control and lead to a conflict if more such incursion attempts occur on either side of the 3,488-km border dividing the two countries. The Pangong incident resulted in stone-pelting that caused minor injuries to soldiers on both sides.

The motive behind the PLA’s incursion may have been to embarrass India on a day it was celebrating 70 years of freedom from colonial rule. It may also have aimed to keep New Delhi guessing on where the PLA will cross the line of actual control next along their shared border stretching from Jammu and Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh.

Skirmishes had happened earlier in Ladakh and elsewhere, but Tuesday’s stone-pelting incident was unprecedented. No shots were fired.

A day after the PLA’s Ladakh incursion attempts, army officers of India and China held a flag meeting at Leh’s Chusul sector. Details of their marathon talks were not immediately available.

This is how the incidents unfolded:

  • About 15 Chinese soldiers tried to enter Ladakh near the Finger Four and Finger Five parts of Pangong Lake between 6 am and 9 am on Tuesday.
  • Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) personnel told Chinese soldiers to go back but they refused.
  • This led to stone-pelting in which soldiers on both sides were injured.
  • Around 9 am, Chinese and Indian soldiers defused tensions by conducting banner drills and stepping back to their respective positions.

The PLA on Tuesday declined India’s invitation to join the border meetings on the occasion of Independence Day.  China’s patience appears to be wearing thin. It has told India to pull out its troops from Dhoklam or face unstated consequences.

China’s intention is clear. It wants to punish India for intervening in Dhoklam and for challenging its hegemony in Asia. It may be waiting for the right opportunity when stone-throwing fetches actual fired shots to make its move.

China ‘unaware’ of incursion attempts

Oddly, Beijing claimed to be unaware of the PLA’s latest incursion attempts. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said only that Chinese border troops are always committed to maintaining peace and tranquility along the India-China border.

India, for its part, has claimed to exercise maximum restraint. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was silent on Dhoklam during his Independence Day speech from the ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi. His pledge to defend the country against foreign threats was a pro forma vague statement that was not explicitly aimed at China.

Meanwhile, Defense Minister Arun Jaitley declined to comment on Wednesday’s flag meeting at Leh.

India has deployed more troops along the border with China in Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh and raised its caution level. Last month, about 15 Chinese soldiers entered a disputed area at Barahoti in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand two times and threatened shepherds grazing cattle in the area.

The situation along the banks of the 134-kilometer-long Pangong Lake has remained tense since a standoff with PLA soldiers in 2013 near Daulat Beg Oldi. India occupies one third of the lake while China holds the rest.

Both sides, meanwhile, continue to send mixed signals. While Indian Army and PLA soldiers were hurling stones at each other near Pangong Lake, troops on both sides also exchanged sweets to celebrate India’s independence at various locations along the border.

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