China's military said Friday (Feb. 19) 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.
India at the time announced it had lost 20 of its soldiers in the June 2020 fighting atop a high ridge in the Karakoram Mountains in the Ladakh region. Soldiers used their fists, clubs, stones, and other improvised weapons to avoid an out-and-out firefight.
China was believed to have also suffered casualties but did not provide any details, saying it didn't want to further inflame tensions. The sides are now engaged in a phased pullback from their original positions following multiple rounds of negotiations.
The People’s Liberation Army Daily newspaper said the four Chinese soldiers and officers killed had all been bestowed with honors and named as martyrs, while a fifth was also awarded by the ruling Communist Party's Central Military Commission.
Earlier, unconfirmed reports had put the number of Chinese dead as high as 45, and Lt. Gen. 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 wasn't clear how many suffered fatal injuries.
Joshi told Indian station News18 that Chinese forces had appeared unwilling to make concessions until Indian forces occupied commanding heights on Aug. 29-30. An agreement to begin pulling back was reached Feb. 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," Joshi told the station.
The tense standoff high 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 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.
Each side accused the other of instigating the violence, which has dramatically changed the India-China relationship.
Relations between the two countries have often been strained, partly due to their undemarcated border. They fought a border war in 1962 that spilled 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 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.