Beijing on diplomatic charge amid pullback
On a day when it finally admitted that it had suffered casualties at Galwan, China on Friday launched a renewed push to blame India both for tensions on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and the deadly clash last year, releasing several videos that sought to portray Indian troops as trespassers and aggressors.
The move came after the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Daily released details for the first time of four soldiers who were killed, and an officer who was injured in the clash at Galwan Valley on June 15, 2020. It is extremely rare for the Chinese military to publicly acknowledge casualties – for instance, it is yet to release official casualty figures for the war with Vietnam in 1979.
China’s defence and foreign ministries issued statements that pinned the blame for the death of Chinese soldiers at Galwan Valley on India. Twenty Indian soldiers were also killed in that clash, when troops from both sides fought for hours with iron rods, clubs covered with barbed wire and rocks. These were the first fatalities on the LAC since 1975.
Experts questioned the timing of the release of the official statements and videos portraying India as the aggressor, just hours ahead of the 10th round of talks between military commanders at Moldo on the Chinese side of the LAC on Saturday. The talks are meant to take forward the disengagement process following the drawdown of forces and armoured vehicles by both sides on the northern and southern banks of Pangong Lake. Some analysts also questioned the veracity of the Chinese numbers.
China’s state media featured the videos and emotionally charged articles, urging citizens to remember the “martyrs” and recounting how four PLA soldiers sacrificed their lives while defending the western borders. The four soldiers and PLA regimental commander Qi Fabao, who was seriously injured in the clash, received military honours, the state media announced, citing the Central Military Commission (CMC).
The title of “border-defending hero” was posthumously conferred on battalion commander Chen Hongjun, while Chen Xiangrong, Xiao Siyuan and Wang Zhuoran posthumously received a “first-class merit”. Qi Fabao received the title of “hero regiment commander for defending the border”.
“They all died in a clash with trespassing foreign military personnel wielding steel tubes, cudgels and stones last June,” official Xinhua news agency reported, citing PLA Daily. The defence ministry said the families of all five soldiers would be well looked after.
The videos, which purportedly portrayed the build-up to the Galwan Valley clash, identified the Indian soldiers only as “foreign” troops and the accompanying commentary painted them as trespassers – an allegation consistently denied by India.
There were several versions of the videos, ranging in length from a little more than a minute to eight minutes, that were released by outlets such as national broadcaster CCTV’s English channel CGTN and the nationalistic tabloid Global Times. The videos, which appear to be edited, show troops from the two sides negotiating and jostling with each other. The background comprises ravines, a flowing river and steep cliffs. It is believed that China’s communication offensive may be aimed at shaping the narrative for its domestic constituency in the wake of the ongoing disengagement in Ladakh.
There was no official response to China’s moves from Indian officials. People familiar with developments said on condition of anonymity that the Indian side has opted to focus on the military commanders’ talks on Saturday instead of being sidetracked by controversial allegations.
“Our focus is on the talks to take forward the disengagement process. Besides, the Indian side’s position on the situation has been amply conveyed by the Indian Army’s Northern Commander in recent interviews,” one of the people cited above said, referring to Lt Gen YK Joshi’s interaction with the Indian media.
The people and experts also pointed out that the articles in the PLA Daily and Global Times were about Chinese soldiers who were decorated for the role in the Galwan Valley clash and didn’t amount to a full listing of Chinese casualties.
Global Times editor Hu Xijin wrote that Wang Zhuoran, the youngest of the four dead soldiers, was only 19 years old, while Chen Xiangrong and Xiao Siyuan were both 24.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying, while blaming India for the clash, contended the PLA Daily’s report had put the truth out in the open. “The Galwan (Valley) incident is so sad and the responsibility, as the Indian side has acknowledged, is with the Indian side. But due to the irresponsible rumours spread by the Indian media, they have misled public opinion, so the unveiling of the true story will help people to better know the whole story,” Hua told a regular news briefing.
“This will be a way to pay tribute to our heroes and martyrs and also will help the Indian side to draw lessons from it and better work with China to uphold peace and stability in the border region and properly resolve the border issue,” she said.
Hua added: “We hope the border issue will be put in the proper place in our bilateral relations.”
Asked why China took more than eight months to release casualty statistics, Hua said the “truth” was long awaited and it was “necessary for people to know the true story”. Noting that one of the dead soldiers would become a father four months after his death and another was getting ready for marriage, she said: “I think our peace today is hard to come by.”
Defence ministry spokesperson Ren Guoqiang, in a statement published on China’s social media, also blamed India for the clash. Ren contended the Indian Army illegally crossed the LAC, took the lead in provocation, and attacked Chinese negotiators, deliberately creating conflict in Galwan Valley and causing casualties on both sides.
Ren added China’s position on resolving the border problem has been clear, consistent, and sincere. China, he said, is committed to resolve disputes through dialogue and negotiation, and is always ready to maintain stability in relations between the two militaries.
The commentary in the Chinese videos too alleged that “foreign troops” had trespassed into Chinese territory since April last year and built bridges and roads, while conducting reconnaissance missions. The commentary further alleges the foreign troops altered the status quo and escalated the dispute on the LAC.
The videos alleged the “foreign troops” assaulted Chinese soldiers, who were outnumbered. The commentary also alleged the “foreign troops were utterly defeated”. India has consistently denied allegations of acting in a provocative manner since the standoff began in May last year and said the PLA trespassed across the LAC.