Video of what appears to be a previously unreported violent clash between Indian and Chinese troops at their disputed Himalayan border has emerged online, offering a rare window into the long-simmering territorial tensions between the two Asian powers.
The video, according to a serving Indian military officer with knowledge of the clashes on the China-India border, was filmed in the mountainous Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh at the Line of Actual Control – the de facto border between the two countries – on September 28, 2021.
CNN has reached out to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs for comment on the video.
Though it’s not clear who filmed or released the video, it began circulating on Indian social media on Tuesday just hours after the Indian Defense Ministry confirmed that a brawl had taken place at the border on Friday, in the remote Tawang sector of northeastern India. The first reported incident in nearly two years.
In the video – which CNN cannot independently verify – troops from both countries are seen on mountainous terrain, surrounded by green hills apparently untouched by winter. Though they’re separated by barbed wire, the footage appears to show Indian troops beating the Chinese soldiers with makeshift weapons, including what look like wooden sticks and metal pipes. In several instances, Indian soldiers can be seen throwing bricks or stones.
Many of the Chinese soldiers, gathered on the other side of the wire, also appear to be holding long sticks or batons.
Eventually the barbed wire collapses and the Indian soldiers move forward, prompting the Chinese troops to jump over a short stone wall and leave the area, to cheers from the Indian side.
The Indian military source said transgressions happen frequently due to the two sides’ different perceptions of the border – and the patrols they carry out along the LAC.
Several experts who spoke to CNN agreed the video did not depict a recent clash given the lack of visible snow. However, the video does offer an insight into the ongoing tensions, information about which is typically highly restricted by authorities.
“It’s an illustration of how quickly things can go south if tensions are not reduced between the two sides,” said Sushant Singh, senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research, an Indian think tank.
The shared 2,100 mile (3,379 kilometer) border has long been the source of friction between India and China. The two countries do not agree on its precise location and both regularly accuse the other of overstepping it, or seeking to expand their territory.
Though a series of mostly non-lethal scuffles over the position of the border have taken place over the years, tensions escalated sharply in June 2020 when hand-to-hand fighting between the two sides resulted in the deaths of at least 20 Indian and four Chinese soldiers.
Experts say other skirmishes that have broken out since have been downplayed by authorities. “The Indian thinking, when I speak with the officials, is that if the situation can be resolved at a very local level, at an operational level between local commanders, it does not blow up into a big major international issue where the political leadership has to be involved,” said Singh.
But unlike those apparently downplayed incidents, Friday’s skirmish was reported by Indian media. This coverage, as well as pressure from domestic political opposition, could have pushed the Indian government to discuss the incident publicly, Singh said.
Speaking to lawmakers on Tuesday, India’s defense minister accused Chinese troops of trying to cross the LAC, saying they were trying to “unilaterally” change the status quo. Soldiers from both sides sustained minor injuries, he said.
Later that evening in a statement posted online, the Chinese military’s Western Theater Command accused Indian troops of “illegally” crossing into the Chinese side of the border.
The location of Friday’s clash is also significant, Singh said. Tawang, a Buddhist town, is home to a revered monastery that plays a central role in Tibetan internal politics, and the town itself is strategically important for China in handling Tibetan affairs.
Tibet is an internationally recognized autonomous region within the People’s Republic of China, though many Tibetans dispute the legitimacy of China’s rule. The Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama has been in exile in India since an unsuccessful revolt against the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959.
Though the source of the newly emerged video is unclear, the timing of its release – shortly after Indian authorities confirmed Friday’s Tawang clash – has raised questions.
The video appears to show “an Indian victory,” said Ian Hall, deputy director of the Griffith Asia Institute. “I think it was released to reinforce the Indian government’s narrative that it is robustly defending India’s claims.”
He added that given the opacity of information surrounding the border situation, the government has been under increased pressure from its political opponents since 2020 “about exactly what occurred … and how much ground was lost.”
Singh added that the Indian government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has faced domestic criticism for not taking a stronger stance on China – meaning videos like this, appearing to show a firm Indian military response, reflect the “nationalistic mood” among the Indian population and political opposition.
“I think these kinds of videos allow that political narrative to play out domestically – that look, we’re responding strong,” he said, adding that it was “highly possible” the video was timed to shore up support for the country’s leadership and military.
But more importantly, the video illustrates how precarious the border situation is, and how quickly violence could break out and potentially escalate.
Chinese and Indian officials have held a series of talks in the past few years, with China withdrawing troops and dismantling infrastructure along the border in 2021 under a mutual disengagement agreement. But progress has since stalled, with relations fraying further as India has drawn closer to the United States, while US-China ties have sunk to new lows.
“The video reminds the rest of the world that the LAC is still volatile – much more so than it was pre-2020,” Hall said.