China's military confirms four deaths in June clash on India border

Fighting occurred during stand-off in mountainous Ladakh region

In this undated handout photograph released by the Indian Army on February  16, 2021 shows People Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers during military disengagement along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) at the India-China border in Ladakh. / AFP / INDIAN MINISTRY OF DEFENCE / - / ----EDITORS NOTE---- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / Indian Army" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS----------
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China’s military said on 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 countries in nearly 45 years.

Immediately after the clash atop a high ridge on June 2020 in the Ladakh region's Karakoram Mountains, India announced that it had lost 20 of its soldiers in the battle in which fists, clubs, stones and other improvised weapons were used to avoid a firefight.

China was believed to also have suffered casualties but did not provide any details, saying it did not want to further inflame tensions. The announcement that it did indeed lose soldiers comes now that the two sides are engaged in a phased pullback from their original positions after several rounds of negotiations.

The People's Liberation Army Daily newspaper said on Friday that 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 Lt Gen Y K Joshi, who heads the Indian Army's Northern Command, said Indian observers counted more than 60 Chinese troops being taken away on stretchers, although it was not clear how many ad suffered fatal injuries.

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," Gen Joshi told the station.

Separately, an Indian security official said on Friday that the military estimated that 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 the incident, input gathered from the Chinese forward hospital and field reports.

Another security official gave a similar account, saying at least 12 Chinese soldiers were seriously wounded in the incident.

It was not clear why word of the deaths was being released now, but the Communist Party newspaper Global Times said China wanted to end speculation about the number of its troops killed and refute accusations that its forces were responsible for sparking the clash.

The tense stand-off 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 lake.

By June, frictions 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 stationed tens of thousands of soldiers backed by artillery, tanks and fighter jets along the de facto border, called the Line of Actual Control, with troops settling in for the harsh winter.

Each side accused the other of instigating the violence, which has dramatically changed the India-China relationship.

Relations between the two countries are often strained, partly because of the undemarcated border. They fought a border war in 1962 that spilt into Ladakh and ended in an uneasy truce marked by additional clashes. 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 control line separates Chinese-held and Indian-held territories 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 kilometres long, while China says it is considerably shorter.