India returns Chinese soldier who got lost ‘looking for yaks’

Corporal’s release underlines easing of tensions on disputed Himalayan border

An Indian army convoy  driving towards Leh, on a highway bordering China, in early September. The Himalayan border between the two countries has been the site of tensions for months. Photograph:   Yawar Nazir/Getty Images

An Indian army convoy driving towards Leh, on a highway bordering China, in early September. The Himalayan border between the two countries has been the site of tensions for months. Photograph: Yawar Nazir/Getty Images

 

India on Wednesday released a Chinese soldier its forces had detained along the disputed mountainous border with China last weekend, signalling an easing of months of tensions that at times this summer had threatened to descend into a broader conflict.

The soldier, a corporal who has not been publicly identified, inadvertently crossed the border while helping local herdsmen search for missing yaks, according to the news agency of the People’s Liberation Army, which reported his return on Wednesday morning.

The statement offered no new details about the circumstances of his disappearance, including why he would have wandered off unaccompanied by other troops. He was the first Chinese soldier detained by the Indian military since tensions escalated this year.

Indian forces have surged to the frontier following a series of incursions by China that began in April into mountainous terrain that India claims as its own, escalating a border dispute that has simmered for decades.

Violence erupted in June, when Chinese and Indian soldiers fought with clubs and other makeshift weapons. Twenty Indian soldiers were killed, as well as an undisclosed number of Chinese. Soldiers have repeatedly confronted each other since then, and at least one other soldier died after stepping on a land mine.

Both sides have sent reinforcements to the border, settling in for the winter dangerously close to each other, in many places only a few hundred metres apart. In September, a few shots were fired for the first time in decades, breaking a long-standing agreement not to use firearms during border confrontations.

The clash has whipped up nationalist fervour on both sides of the border and derailed relations that had in recent years shown signs of warming, leaving little room for the countries’ leaders, Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi, to make concessions.

In September, though, the foreign ministers of the two countries announced a five-point agreement to defuse the immediate standoff, if not the underlying territorial disputes. Since then, Indian and Chinese military officials have held a series of discussions that appear to have made some progress in avoiding new violence. An eighth round of talks is scheduled this week.

The Indian army, in disclosing the soldier’s detention on Monday, said that it had given him food, warm clothes, oxygen and medical care to “protect him from the vagaries of extreme altitude and harsh climatic conditions”. Conditions along the frontier – where the elevation exceeds 4,000 metres – have become even more forbidding with the onset of winter.

The Global Times, a newspaper controlled by the Communist Party of China that often assumes a nationalist tone, welcomed the soldier’s release on Wednesday, calling it a “positive sign” ahead of the next round of talks. – New York Times