Two of the world’s biggest superpowers have come a step closer to all-out conflict after shots were fired by troops along a disputed border for the first time in 45 years.
India and China have been involved in a tense stand-off since May and things threatened to boil over after a medieval-style battle in June.
Back then, Chinese soldiers used clubs studded with nails and metal rods to kill 20 Indian soldiers.
Now there are fears the violence could hit a new high after shots were fired in the contested Ladakh border region, high in the Himalayas, earlier this week.
Beijing claimed Indian troops crossed into its territory and fired “provocative” warning shots at its soldiers.
In response it said Chinese troops had been “forced to take countermeasures” though it didn’t say what these were.
In a statement, Colonel Zhang Shuili, spokesman for China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) demanded that India restrain its troops and punish the soldiers who fired their weapons.
“These are serious military provocations of a terrible nature,” he said.
India rejected this, saying Chinese soldiers were making repeated attempts to cross the heavily controversial border line – dubbed the Line of Actual Control – at a particular location.
When Indian troops told them to go back, the official said, the Chinese soldiers “became aggressive and fired shots” in the air.
The armed stand-off comes amid a period of heightened tension in the region. India and China have been locking horns in the northern Ladakh region of disputed Kashmir for months.
But this week marks the first time since 1975, when four Indian soldiers were killed in the eastern Himalayas, that both countries have acknowledged the use of firearms at the frontier.
And, it’s significant because both nations had formally agreed to refrain from using firearms along the border in a 1996 peace agreement.
Stephen Peter Westcott, a postdoctoral research fellow at Murdoch University, said up until this week China and India have upheld this agreement, even when previous border patrol confrontations became heated.
“However, both sides have been pushing the limits of what the other will tolerate and have trying to exploit loopholes and technicalities for several years now,” he wrote in a piece for The Conversation today.
“Border confrontations have gradually escalated from farcical shoving matches to fully fledged brawls and stone flinging, which caused injuries in 2017.”
There have been flare-ups between the two regional powers over their 3500km frontier, which has never been properly demarcated, since a war between the two nations in 1962.
However, tensions rose dramatically in May this year with India’s inauguration of a Himalayan link road built in a disputed region that lies at a strategic three-way junction with Tibet and China.
The 80km road, inaugurated by Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, cuts through the Lipu Lekh Himalayan pass, considered one of the shortest and most feasible trade routes between India and China.
Even before that, India’s relations with China nosedived as India was moving strategically closer to the West by deepening security co-operation with the US, Japan and Australia in the Asia-Pacific region.
Over recent months, tens of thousands of troops from both sides have been deployed to the border, which sits at an altitude of more than 4000m.
Today however, both nations have agreed to “disengage as soon as possible” after this week’s clashes, according to a joint statement.
After a meeting on Thursday between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Indian counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar in Moscow, a joint statement said the two sides had agreed to de-escalate.
“(The) border defence forces of both countries should continue dialogue, disengage as soon as possible, maintain the necessary distance, and ease the situation on the ground,” the statement said.
The two also agreed to “avoid actions that may escalate the situation”. Throughout the dispute, China and India have issued similar statements calling for restraint and to ease tensions.
Despite, the encouraging words today, India has already flexed it’s military muscles this week.
Just yesterday, India’s Mr Singh hailed the formal commissioning of the country’s first new state-of-the-art jet fighters.
He said the French Rafale jets would send a “strong message” to its adversaries.
The first five of a $9.4-billion order for 36 Rafale aircraft formally entered service following a ceremony in Ambala in northern India.
“The induction of Rafale is a strong message for the world and especially for those who challenge India’s sovereignty,” Mr Singh tweeted, without mentioning China directly.
“Our country will not take any step to disturb peace anywhere. We expect the same from our neighbours.”
Experts see this as a sign that tensions between India and China won’t disappear anytime soon.
Mr Westcott there is “a culture of mistrust continues to poison discussions” between the two nations.
“Both countries will now need to engage in some masterful and innovative diplomatic work to find a way to rejuvenate their diplomacy,” he wrote for The Conversation. “And find a mutually face-saving way to disengage before the standoff escalates out of control.”