Anger Surges in India Over Deadly Border Brawl With China

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NEW DELHI — An Indian government minister has called for Chinese restaurants to be closed. Other Indian officials have suddenly put contracts to Chinese companies under review. And crowds of men are now smashing Chinese-made televisions in the street.

A wave of anti-Chinese anger is cresting across India as the nation struggles to absorb the loss of 20 Indian soldiers beaten to death this week by Chinese troops in a high-altitude brawl along India’s disputed border with China.

“We should bleed China with a thousand cuts,” said Ranjit Singh, a retired army major who is calling for a boycott of Chinese goods. “We need to hit them where it hurts most, and that is economically.”

And the tensions are hardly easing. Sonam Joldan, a teacher in the Ladakh region near the India-China border, reported on Thursday seeing a line of 100 Indian Army trucks heading toward the front line, wending its way up the Himalayan mountains “like a caravan of ants.”

How did he feel watching the forces go by?

“Patriotic, of course,” Mr. Joldan said. “India can’t watch the Chinese aggression go on forever. They have to be stopped at some point.”

The killing of the Indian soldiers, he said, was unforgivable.

ImagePaying tribute on Thursday to Sunil Kumar, an Indian soldier who was killed in a border clash with Chinese troops this week.
Credit…Reuters

Indian and Chinese generals continued to meet on Thursday to discuss de-escalation at the border high up in the Himalayas where the brawl erupted, officials said. But military analysts and satellite imagery indicated that Chinese troops had yet to pull back.

By some accounts, in recent weeks they have taken about 23 square miles of territory claimed by India and show no signs of leaving.

Western intelligence officials said that India would not accept this and that the chances of more fighting remained high, especially with thousands of opposing troops eyeball-to-eyeball along a remote front line that has erupted in violence several times, including a major war between India and China in 1962.

Troops from both sides have been instructed not to use firearms during faceoffs along the border, but that did not stop a vicious hand-to-hand battle from raging for several hours Monday night. One Indian military analyst posted a picture on Twitter of steel clubs studded with nails that he said had been used by the Chinese troops.

On Thursday, several of the Indian soldiers killed were given last rites, including Col. Bikkumalla Santosh Babu, whose body was driven through the streets of Suryapet, in central India, in an army truck draped with marigolds. As the cortege passed, people stood on their balconies, stiff right hands to their temples in a final salute.

Some officers in India’s army now want to change the rules of engagement along the border and abandon the de facto code that calls for neither side to use guns during confrontations. Military analysts worry that doing so could set off an arms race that would turn the frequent faceoffs and fistfights between opposing border patrols into much deadlier events.

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Credit…Jagadeesh Nv/EPA, via Shutterstock

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has tried to walk a fine line. Although he seems reluctant to escalate a major conflict with China — which has a mightier military — much of his political brand has been tied up in projecting an image of a forceful, increasingly powerful India, and he has signaled that he will not back down.

“India wants peace,” he said in a televised address on Wednesday. “But if provoked, India is capable of giving a befitting reply.”

Whenever he has been in a pinch, Mr. Modi has been able to count on a wave of Indian nationalism. Such sentiment helped in the early stage of the coronavirus pandemic when he asked India’s entire population of 1.3 billion to stay indoors for the sake of the nation and many diligently obeyed.

And last year, when Indian paramilitary forces were attacked in a suicide bombing linked to a terrorist group in Pakistan, Mr. Modi ordered airstrikes on Pakistan. The brinkmanship set off a jolt of jingoism that, a few months later, helped propel him to a crushing re-election victory.

But he and his generals know that China’s power eclipses Pakistan’s. So India’s emerging strategy to contain China involves a broader mix of tactics, including economic and diplomatic ones.

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On Thursday, the Indian Express, one of the nation’s leading newspapers, reported that India’s government was preparing to cancel a huge railway contract that had been given to a Chinese company.

That may be just the beginning.

Protests have broken out across India to boycott Chinese goods, a move that will not be easy. The phones in most Indians’ hands are made in China, as are countless other products. India-China trade has grown enormously, from $3 billion in 2000 to more than $95 billion in 2018. And as of last year, a trade deficit between the two nations had reached nearly $60 billion in China’s favor.

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Credit…Sajjad Hussain/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Modi can count on a friendly media landscape, especially when it comes to national security issues.

Last week, before the deadly clash, Indian media outlets carried articles saying that all was well on the Himalayan border, which was what the Indian generals had been telling them. Now, Indian outlets are running instructions on how to remove Chinese-made apps like TikTok from mobile phones.

“We can break China’s backbone economically,” Mr. Singh, the retired army major, said in a recorded message he sent to residents in his neighborhood. “Shun Chinese goods. If you have any lying in your house, please throw them out.”

“Take pictures of items thrown on the roads,” the message said. “Let them become viral — let them reach China and tell them this is what we think of them.”

Sameer Yasir and Hari Kumar contributed reporting.

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