China discloses four military fatalities from India border clash last June

Foreign Affairs

The exceedingly rare admission of military combat fatalities from Beijing comes after eight months of silence. It appears to be a recognition that tensions with India are successfully deescalating, after an agreement to disengage at one of the many border conflict areas, Pangong Lake.

Illustration by Derek Zheng

Eight months after a bloody clash on the India-China border, Beijing has made an exceedingly rare admission of military combat fatalities.

  • Four soldiers in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) who were stationed in the Karakoram Mountains died in the June 2020 hand-to-hand brawl, the PLA Daily said in an article today (in Chinese), honoring them as martyrs.
  • “The responsibility [for conflict] lies entirely with the Indian side,” the Chinese foreign ministry said today (Chinese, English), when asked about the article. Of course, India has always maintained the exact opposite.
  • See also Global Times coverage of the news in English.

Why admit fatalities now?

The Chinese foreign ministry says that the admission of fatalities came after “the Indian side has repeatedly sensationalized and hyped up this incident with the casualties and distorted the truth to mislead the international public opinion.”

  • It could indeed have been a reaction to comments by Lieutenant General YK Joshi, India’s northern army commander, who this week claimed that “Indian troops had observed ‘more than 60’ fatal or non-fatal casualties on the Chinese side after the clash,” the Financial Times notes.
  • However, the timing comes right after an agreement to disengage at one of the many border conflict areas, Pangong Lake.

In effect, the PLA Daily article is a recognition that the border conflict is successfully deescalating, at least at the moment. If tensions were escalating, it likely would not have been published.

  • “Back in June, China-Indian relations were intense. But now the China-India border conflict has eased,” Wang Dehua of the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies told the FT.

Is the number credible?

Ananth Krishnan, a veteran journalist of India-China affairs, writes that while we have no way of verifying the number of Chinese fatalities, the single-digit number “sounds more or less plausible” and happens to be “similar to the number initially reported in the Indian media in June.” A separate number of 45, Krishnan comments, has “somewhat questionable provenance.”

  • Taylor Fravel, a scholar of China’s military, notes that there could have been more fatalities, as the PLA Daily article “was not a complete account of [the] clash or designed to provide a full accounting of all casualties.”

See also, on the easing in India-China tensions: