The platoon of Chinese soldiers slipped across the boundary into India in the middle of the night, according to Indian officials. They were ferried across the bitterly cold moonscape in Chinese army vehicles, then got out to traverse a dry creek bed with a helicopter hovering overhead for protection.
They finally reached their destination and pitched a tent in the barren Depsang Valley in the Ladakh region, a symbolic claim of sovereignty deep inside Indian-held territory. So stealthy was the operation that India did not discover the incursion until a day later, Indian officials said.
China denies any incursion, but Indian officials say that for two weeks, the soldiers have refused to move back over the so-called Line of Actual Control (LAC) that divides Indian-ruled territory from Chinese-run land, leaving the government on the verge of a crisis with its powerful northeastern neighbor.
Indian officials fear that if they react with force, the face-off could escalate into a battle with the feared People’s Liberation Army. However, doing nothing would leave a Chinese outpost deep in territory that India has ruled since independence.
“If they have come 19km into India, it is not a minor LAC violation. It is a deliberate military operation. And even as India protests, more tents have come up,” said Sujit Dutta, a China specialist at the Jamia Milia Islamia university in New Delhi.
“Clearly, the Chinese are testing India to see how far they can go,” he said.
That is not China’s stated view.
“China strictly complies with the treaty and documents on maintaining peace and stability in the border region between India and China,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying (華春瑩) said last week.
“The Chinese patrol troops did not go across the Line of Actual Control, not by even one step,” she said.
Local army commanders from both sides have held three meetings over the crisis, according to Indian officials.
India’s foreign secretary called in the Chinese ambassador to register a strong protest. Yet the troops did not move, and even pitched a second tent, Indian officials said.
The timing of the crisis, weeks before Chinese Premier Li Ke-qiang (李克強) is to visit India, has surprised many here. The Chinese leader’s decision to make India his first trip abroad since taking office two months ago had been seen as an important gesture toward strengthening ties between rival powers that have longstanding border disputes, but also growing trade relations.
Manoj Joshi, a defense analyst at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation, said the timing of the incursion raises questions about “whether there is infighting within the Chinese leadership, or whether someone is trying to upstage Li.”
Indian Minister of External Affairs Salman Khurshid said on Wednesday that while he had no plans to cancel a trip to Beijing next week to prepare for Li’s visit, the government could reconsider in the coming week.
“A week is a long time in politics,” he told reporters.
Indian politicians accused the scandal-plagued government of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of floundering in fear before China.
“China realizes that India has a weak government, and a prime minister who is powerless,” said Yashwant Sinha, a former foreign minister from the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.
Former Indian Defense Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav called the government “cowardly and incompetent.”
He warned that China was trying to annex more territory to add to the spoils it took following its victory over India in a brief 1962 border war.
Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony countered that India is “united in its commitment to take every possible step to safeguard our interests.”
Supporters of the right-wing Shiv Sena party burned effigies of Singh, Antony and other top officials on Wednesday, demanding that India retaliate by barring Chinese imports.