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Bharatiya Janata Party supporters burn posters and effigy of Chinese President Xi Jinping during an anti-China protest in Allahabad, India, on June 17, 2020.

SANJAY KANOJIA/AFP/Getty Images

India’s Prime Minister is saluting the 20 soldiers killed in a battle with Chinese forces high in the Himalayas Monday, with the two countries declaring a desire for peace but offering little sign of compromise in a six-week border standoff.

“The country will be proud to know that they died after they killed their adversaries,” Narendra Modi said Wednesday, pledging that India will defend its claims to sovereign territory to the last stone. “The sacrifice of our soldiers will not be in vain for us,” he said.

The deaths in the high-altitude Galwan Valley, in the disputed territories along the Line of Actual Control, mark the first deadly conflict between the two countries in 45 years.

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China blames the eruption of violence on Indian military incursions. India points to a surge of Chinese aggression that is creating a dangerous new flashpoint amid a disruptive and deadly pandemic.

“India wants peace,” Mr. Modi said, “but it is capable to give a befitting reply when instigated.”

What one Indian columnist called “a medieval-era clash” lasted more than six hours Monday, Indian media reported Wednesday, with soldiers of the two nuclear-armed countries fighting with stones and sticks studded with nails, in keeping with a long-standing practice of eschewing firearms on the disputed border.

The Chinese government has sought to maintain calm following the attack, playing down the Galwan Valley violence inside China and refusing to list its own casualties, which the Indian military has estimated at several dozen.

On Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Indian counterpart, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, agreed to ease tensions and maintain an earlier agreement to de-escalate the standoff.

But China has shown little willingness to compromise, and Mr. Wang blamed Indian soldiers for deliberately provoking the confrontation by crossing onto the Chinese side of the disputed territory. Mr. Wang demanded that India punish those responsible, according to a state media report.

China has argued that India provoked tensions in the area with new road building. India says China has sought to change the status quo, without explaining what that means. China also recently conducted a live-fire tank drill at high altitude, state media reported Wednesday.

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In India, meanwhile, there were signs of a public backlash that could make it difficult for Mr. Modi’s nationalist government to quickly put the deaths behind it.

Early last year, Mr. Modi issued a defiant vindication of his pre-election air strikes on what his government said were terror camps in Pakistan, an act that stirred up fears of a new war between the two countries. “It is my nature to settle every score,” Mr. Modi said then.

Now he must decide whether to apply the same retaliatory logic to China, an emergent superpower with a military budget more than triple that of India’s.

“How about a surgical air strike in Tibet on Chinese troop establishments to avenge the death of our 20 brave jawans including a commanding officer?” wrote Yashwant Sinha, a former Indian foreign minister, on Twitter Wednesday, using a local term for junior soldiers. “Or is all our bravado only for Pakistan?”

In an interview, Mr. Sinha, who is often critical of Mr. Modi’s government, said: “China is behaving like an international bully. India is not. The only way you can call the bluff of a bully is to challenge the bully.

“If the Chinese want to change the status quo,” he added, “then we should resist that, whatever it takes.”

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The clash in the Galwan Valley shows that China’s long-standing doctrine of “peace and tranquillity” is a “ruse to force their cartographic expansion agenda,” wrote Shishir Gupta, the author of The Himalayan Face-off, in the Hindustan Times, where he is executive editor.

Local media called the dead soldiers “martyrs.”

“How dare China kill our soldiers? How dare they take our land?” Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the opposition Congress Party, asked on Twitter.

Beijing has accused India of taking advantage of U.S. backing to challenge Chinese sovereignty. But there has been little outward sign in China of a desire to escalate hostilities.

“The world, and particularly the U.S., would only be too happy to see an escalating clash between China and India, the two fast-rising countries,” said Du Youkang, a researcher who studies Indian border issues at the China Centre for South Asian Studies at Sichuan University.

But “stronger China-India ties will bring more certainty in this current period of extreme uncertainty, and that will be harmed if either side starts a war. So I think China and India will go to the negotiation table next, temporarily putting aside misunderstandings, and figure out an answer.”

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For India, however, easing tensions is no longer a reasonable goal, argues Nitin Pai, a scholar of defence economics and international relations and the director of the Takshashila Institution, a non-partisan public policy research centre.

“The question is, where would you escalate and how would you escalate? That’s really the policy issue which we need to be thinking about,” he said.

He sees India’s two primary options as continued conflict along the Himalayan frontier or the opening of new points of confrontation elsewhere. A more assertive Indian challenge to China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, for example, “would put pressure on the Chinese government,” he said.

The deadly clash this week can partly be explained by frayed tempers among soldiers who have maintained a standoff in difficult conditions – at altitudes in excess of four kilometres, said Satish Dua, a retired lieutenant-general who served as the country’s chief of integrated defence staff. It is a positive sign, he said, that talks between the two countries have continued and “that bullets have still not been exchanged.”

But for India, the death of 20 soldiers will be difficult to move past. “It’s a matter of national pride,” he said, describing a need for an “all of nation” approach that can use diplomatic, economic and other means to pressure China to return the border area to the status quo.

“My take is that it is a long-lasting crack” between the two countries, he said.

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With reporting by Alexandra Li

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