Modi to meet opposition as India seeks to ease China tensions

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi will meet top opposition leaders on Friday as the government tries to lower tensions with China after 20 Indian soldiers were killed in hand-to-hand combat in a Himalayan border region.

India and China accuse each other of instigating the fight this week in the Galwan Valley, part of the disputed Indian-administered Ladakh region. It was the deadliest conflict between the two sides in 45 years. China has not said whether it suffered any casualties.

India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh spoke to the heads of various political parties on Thursday to discuss a consensus on the situation.

Modi will host the leaders of more than a dozen opposition parties in a virtual meeting scheduled at 5pm (11:30 GMT) on Friday.

Some political parties, including Delhi’s governing Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Bihar state-based Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) have expressed anger over not being invited.

The main opposition Congress party said the country deserves to know the truth. “It deserves a leadership that is willing to do anything before allowing its land to be taken,” it said in a statement.

War unlikely, say experts

India and China said they were communicating through military and diplomatic channels, and stressed the importance of their broader relationship. Experts say the two nations were unlikely to head to war, but that easing tensions quickly will be difficult.

On Thursday, India’s foreign ministry spokesman Anurag Srivastava said Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar will take part in a trilateral virtual meeting with Russia and China next week.

But the deadly Himalayan clash has also fanned growing anti-Chinese sentiments in India, which were already high because of the coronavirus pandemic, which began in China late last year. India’s caseload has climbed to fourth-highest in the world

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Emotions were on display in the southern city of Hyderabad, where thousands watched the funeral procession of Colonel B Santosh Babu, one of the casualties in Monday’s clash.

An Indian business confederation called for a boycott of 500 Chinese goods, including toys and textiles, to express “strong criticism” of China’s action in Ladakh.

‘China will never be friendly’

Taylor Fravel, director of the Security Studies programme at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said China was trying to put pressure on India, and he did not think Beijing wanted a violent clash between their armies.

From a strategic perspective, Fravel said, China should want to drive a wedge between India and the United States to prevent any kind of counter-balance coalition.

“The deaths and the clash on Monday night will probably very quickly and much more rapidly push India closer to the United States, which I think is probably not what China wants,” he said.

G Parthasarathy, a retired Indian diplomat, said both China and Pakistan – another hostile neighbour of India’s – were aiming at low-cost containment of India. “China has a hangup against India and its civilisation. For us to expect China will be a friendly neighbour … it will never be a friendly relationship.”

The clash escalated a standoff that began in early May, when Indian officials said Chinese soldiers crossed the border in three places, erecting tents and guard posts and ignoring warnings to leave.

That triggered shouting matches, stone-throwing and fist fights between the opposing sides, much of it replayed on TV news programmes and in social media.

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The action has taken place along a remote stretch of the 3,380-kilometre (2,100-mile) Line of Actual Control – the border established following a war between India and China in 1962 that resulted in an uneasy truce.

The deaths happened in the thin air at 4,270 metres (14,000 feet) above sea level, when soldiers brawled with clubs, rocks and their fists with no shots fired, Indian officials have said. The soldiers carry firearms but are not allowed to use them under a previous agreement in the border standoff.

Indian security officials have said the 20 deaths were caused by severe injuries and exposure to sub-freezing temperatures.

On Friday, Indian media reports said China freed 10 Indian soldiers seized in the clash following several rounds of talks between the two sides.

The soldiers were freed late on Thursday, the Press Trust of India news agency and other media reported. Indian officials, however, have denied any Indian troops were in Chinese custody.

The Indian army on Thursday said 76 of its soldiers were hospitalised with injuries, with 56 among them likely to return to work “within a week”.

China claims about 90,000 square kilometres (35,000 square miles) of territory in India’s northeast, while India says China occupies 38,000 square kilometres (15,000 square miles) of its territory in the Aksai Chin Plateau in the Himalayas, a contiguous part of the Ladakh region.

India unilaterally declared Ladakh a federal territory while separating it from disputed Kashmir in August 2019. China was among the countries to condemn the move, raising it at forums including the UN Security Council. India was elected to the council this week.

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