China’s military has acknowledged 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, 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”, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said.
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 clash on a high ridge in June in the Ladakh region’s Karakoram Mountains, India announced it had lost 20 soldiers in the battle that saw fists, clubs, stones and other improvised weapons used to avoid a firefight.
China was believed to have also suffered casualties but did not provide any details, saying it did not want to further inflame tensions. The announcement that it did lose soldiers comes now the two sides are engaged in a phased pullback from their original positions following multiple rounds of negotiations.
The People’s Liberation Army Daily newspaper said the four killed were named as official state martyrs and awarded other posthumous honours.
It said 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 fighting in “a clash with trespassing foreign military personnel”, without mentioning India directly.
Qi Fabao, a regimental commander from the PLA Xinjiang Military Command who was wounded in the clash, was awarded the title of “hero regimental commander for defending the border”.
Earlier, unconfirmed reports had put the number of Chinese dead as high as 45, and Lieutenant General YK Joshi, who commands the Indian Army’s Northern Command, said Indian observers counted more than 60 Chinese troops being taken away on stretchers, though it was not clear how many suffered fatal injuries.
Lt Gen Joshi told Indian station News18 that Chinese forces had appeared unwilling to make concessions until Indian forces occupied commanding heights on August 29-30. An agreement to begin pulling back was reached on February 10.
“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,” Lt Gen Joshi told the station.
Separately, an Indian security official said on 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 on the night of incident, input gathered from the Chinese forward hospital and field reports from the ground.
Another security official offered a similar account, saying at least 12 Chinese soldiers were “seriously” wounded in the incident.
The 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, which is marked by eight contested ridges where rivers flow into the waterbody.
By June, frictions had escalated and spread north in Depsang and Galwan Valley, where India has built an all-weather military road along the disputed frontier. Since the clash, both countries have 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 are in a standoff in Depsang and at least two other places, Gogra and Hot Springs.