BEIJING – China’s military said Friday that four of its soldiers were killed in a high-mountain border clash with Indian forces last year, the first time Beijing has publicly conceded its side suffered casualties in the deadliest incident between the Asian giants in nearly 45 years.
The announcement, coming more than six months after the bloody hand-to-hand fighting, should help global audiences “understand the truth and the right and wrong of the incident," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said.
Yet the delay also appeared to reflect China's deep culture of military secrecy, as well as concerns over the potential domestic and international fallout from the bloodshed.
Immediately after the June 2020 clash atop a high ridge in the Ladakh region’s Galwan Valley, India announced it had lost 20 of its soldiers in a battle that saw fists, clubs, stones and other improvised weapons used to avoid a firefight.
China was believed to have also had casualties but did not provide any details, saying it didn’t want to further inflame tensions.
The announcement that it did lose soldiers came as the two sides wrapped up a phased pullback from one of their original positions following multiple rounds of negotiations.
Indian and Chinese troops have completed disengagement from the southern and northern banks of Pangong Lake, an Indian army officer said on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to talk to reporters. The withdrawal had begun Feb. 10.
Commander-level talks are scheduled for Saturday to discuss pulling back from other areas, the officer said.
The Chinese announcement came in the military's newspaper, the People’s Liberation Army Daily, which said the four killed were named state martyrs.
The title of “border-defending hero” was conferred on Battalion Commander Chen Hongjun, while Chen Xiangrong, Xiao Siyuan and Wang Zhuoran received first-class merit awards. It attributed their deaths to “a clash with trespassing foreign military personnel," without mentioning India directly.
Qi Fabao, a regimental commander who was wounded in the clash, was awarded the title of “hero regimental commander for defending the border."
A brief video of the two militaries clashing last June was shown Friday night by Chinese state broadcaster CCTV's dedicated military channel, including a daytime confrontation in a river with sticks and shields and another at night. Qi was shown among the soldiers shouting and gesticulating, with a voiceover saying he was insisting that matters be handled according to agreed upon procedures. Chinese troops wore helmets and body armor of the type used by riot police and at least one Chinese soldier was later shown being treated in the field for a bloody head wound.
Accompanied by dramatic orchestral music and slick production values, pictures of the four dead soldiers were then shown superimposed against a background of snow-capped peaks. At the end of the segment, troops were again shown patrolling and exercising on foot and in tanks, although the exact times and locations were not clear.
In the initial days after the clash, unconfirmed reports in Indian media put the number of Chinese dead as high as 45. More recently, an Indian security official said Friday that the military estimates at least 14 Chinese soldiers were wounded, eight of whom later died.
That assessment was based on the number of stretchers used to remove the injured, input gathered from a Chinese forward hospital and field reports. Another security official offered a similar account, saying at least 12 Chinese soldiers were seriously wounded in the incident.
Both spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with government regulations.
Hua, the Chinese spokesperson, said “the Indian side has repeatedly exaggerated and hyped the casualties, distorting the truth and misleading international public opinion. Now the PLA Daily has published a report on the incident to reveal the truth.”
The tense standoff in the Karakoram mountains began in early May, when Indian and Chinese soldiers ignored each other’s repeated verbal warnings, triggering a shouting match, stone-throwing and fistfights on the northern bank of Pangong Lake.
By June, frictions had spread north to Depsang and the Galwan Valley, where India has built an all-weather military road along the disputed frontier. Both countries stationed tens of thousands of soldiers backed by artillery, tanks and fighter jets along the de facto border called the Line of Actual Control, or LAC, with troops settling in for the harsh winter.
Troops withdrew from the Galwan Valley shortly after the June clashes and have now done so from Pangong Lake. They remain in a standoff in Depsang and at least two other places, Gogra and Hot Springs.
Lt. Gen. YK Joshi, who commands the Indian Army’s Northern Command, told Indian station News18 that China had appeared unwilling to make concessions until Indian forces occupied commanding heights on Aug. 29-30.
“This disengagement is happening because we had taken the dominating position on the Kailash range. So, now the purpose has been achieved, we are going back to status quo ante April 2020,” Joshi told the station.
Each side accused the other of instigating the violence, which has dramatically changed the India-China relationship.
Responsibility “doesn’t lie with China,” Hua said, adding that China has “exercised great restraint, reflecting China’s tolerance and commitment as a responsible power.”
The two sides fought a border war in 1962 that spilled into Ladakh and ended in an uneasy truce. Since then, troops have guarded the undefined border while occasionally brawling. The two countries have agreed not to attack each other with firearms.
The fiercely contested line of actual control stretches from Ladakh in the west to India’s eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims in its entirety. It is broken in parts where the Himalayan nations of Nepal and Bhutan sit between India and China.
According to India, the de facto border is 3,488 kilometers (2,167 miles) long, while China says it is considerably shorter. As its name suggests, the LAC divides the areas of physical control rather than territorial claims.
Hussain reported from Srinagar, India. Associated Press writer Ashok Sharma in New Delhi contributed to this report.