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China says four PLA soldiers died in India border clash last year

People's Liberation Army soldiers at Shenyang training base in China, March 24, 2007.(DoD photo by Staff Sgt. D. Myles Cullen, U.S. Air Force)
February 22, 2021

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) admitted on Friday that four of its soldiers died in a border clash with Indian soldiers, days after China and India withdrew their troops from the region.

Starting last week, China withdrew around 10,000 troops from PLA training areas along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) opposite the eastern parts of India’s Ladakh province.

Just days later, the official army newspaper, the People’s Liberation Army Daily, announced that four of Chinese soldiers were killed in a clash with Indian forces in a highly mountainous part of the border region last year.

It said the four had received posthumous military honors. Battalion Commander Chen Hongjun had been conferred the title “hero of border defense,” while Chen Xiangrong, Xiao Siyuan, and Wang Zhuoran were given first-class merit awards.

Their deaths were attributed to “a clash with trespassing foreign military personnel,” although India wasn’t mentioned by name.

A regimental commander who was wounded in the incident, Qi Fabao, was also awarded the title of “hero of border defense,” the paper reported.

State broadcaster CCTV aired a short video clip of the clash on Friday on its military channel, showing Qi talking to an interpreter standing face-to-face with a member of the Indian army.

“Ask him if he would let us go over there now to ‘carry out our duty’,” Qin tells the interpreter. “Tell them to get the hell out of here. Right now! Otherwise what happens next is on them.”

“If you don’t want a war then get lost!” Qin shouts.

Photos of the dead soldiers were also shown, accompanied by orchestral music.

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the disclosure should help the world “understand the truth, and the right and wrong of the incident.”

“The Indian side has repeatedly exaggerated and hyped the casualties, distorting the truth, and misleading international public opinion,” Hua told a regular news briefing in Beijing.

“Now the PLA Daily has published a report on the incident to reveal the truth.”

Hua said responsibility for the clash “doesn’t lie with China,” saying the PLA had exercised “great restraint.”

Nationalistic sentiment

Former Tsinghua University politics lecturer Wu Qiang said the airing of the video and the honoring of the soldiers came only after the withdrawal of troops, suggesting that the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was keen to moderate nationalistic fervor at home.

“This announcement from China comes against the background of the agreement between the two militaries that both sides will withdraw forces,” Wu said. “There is a certain opportunism to the timing, because it avoids whipping up nationalistic sentiment among the Chinese public.”

Wu added: “India is still in a strong position. [We have seen that] one legacy left over from the Trump era has been a strong political alliance against China in the Asia-Pacific region.”

Thousands of Indian and Chinese troops faced off in June 2020 at three or four locations in the western Himalayas after Beijing’s forces intruded into Indian territory, according to Indian security officials and local media.

But China denied breaching the LAC near the Galwan River in India’s snowy and mountainous Ladakh region.

An Indian army officer told the Associated Press that Indian and Chinese troops have now completed disengagement from the southern and northern banks of Pangong Lake, in an operation begun on Feb. 10, 2021.

Commander-level talks are scheduled for Saturday to discuss pulling back from other areas, the officer told the AP on condition of anonymity.

The U.S. sided with India immediately following the incident, saying China’s incursion into Indian territory was typical of its behavior in other regions, including the South China Sea.

India said at the time that Chinese troops had recently “undertaken activity hindering India’s normal patrolling patterns.”

Chinese state media said Indian troops had been “trespassing” on Chinese territory and trying to erect illegal defense facilities since the beginning of May.

A string of flare-ups

Last year’s clash in Ladakh the latest in a string of flare-ups along China’s and India’s 2,200-mile-long undemarcated LAC, with Indian soldiers using their fists to block an attempt by Chinese troops on May 9 to cross into Indian territory at the Nakula pass in northern Sikkim.

Meanwhile, in June 2017, India sent hundreds of troops into Bhutan to defend its ally against efforts by China to build a road southward into Doklam, an area claimed by both China and Bhutan. The stand-off continued for over two months and ended when both sides withdrew.

China and India fought a border war in 1962 that left hundreds killed or wounded on both sides and ended in an uneasy truce, and a ban on the use of firearms.