China announces deaths from Galwan clash, disengagement completed at Pangong, and the Quad meets

Welcome to today’s The India China Newsletter.

In this issue, I’ll be looking at:

- China announcing for the first time deaths from last year’s border clash, and what to make of the number

- Disengagement completed at Pangong lake and moves on to other areas

- The Quad meets

- A clearer picture begins to emerge from WHO investigations in Wuhan

The big development today was the PLA revealing it lost four soldiers in the June 15 clash in Galwan Valley. It did not say how many were injured. The reveal came as the PLA honoured five soldiers, including a regiment commander who suffered a serious injury and survived. From Global Times:

Five Chinese frontier officers and soldiers stationed in the Karakoram Mountains have been recognized by the Central Military Commission of China for defending national sovereignty and territorial integrity in the border confrontation with India, which occurred in the Galwan Valley in June 2020, the PLA Daily reported on Friday.

The Central Military Commission awarded Qi Fabao, the regimental commander from the PLA Xinjiang Military Command, the title of "Hero regimental commander for defending the border," Chen Hongjun with "Hero to defend the border," and awarded first-class merit to Chen Xiangrong, Xiao Siyuan and Wang Zhuoran.

This is the first time China has unveiled casualties and details of these officers and soldiers, four of whom died when dealing with the Indian military's illegal trespassing of the Galwan Valley Line of Actual Control (LAC).

The PLA Daily report also presented new details from China’s version of what led to the clash, which, needless to say, differs starkly from India’s version which pretty much says the opposite of who was the aggressor:

The report also revisited the whole incident - how the Indian military deployed a large number of soldiers who premeditatedly hid, trying to force the Chinese military to concede. How the Chinese soldiers defended the sovereignty of the country amid attacks of steel tubes, cudgels and stones was also highlighted.

A total of 20 Indian soldiers died in the skirmish. This is the worst border conflict between the two countries in nearly 45 years. Indian media had previously boasted that the Chinese military suffered more deaths in the region.

"Since April 2020, relevant foreign military violated the previous agreement… they trespassed the border line to build roads and bridges and intentionally incited troubles, changing the status quo along the border… they even violently attacked Chinese soldiers that were sent for communication," read the PLA Daily report.

When facing the Indian military's trespassing and provocations in May 2020, Chen Xiangrong and other Chinese soldiers fought back and forced them to return. "When facing enemies that outnumbered us, none of us flinched. Amid their stone attacks, we drove them away," Chen wrote in his diary.

The PLA also put out new video footage from the Galwan clash:

China's Defence Ministry had this to say in a statement - the reference to Xi Jinping (in bold) is worth noting. As the South China Morning Post reported earlier, Xi would have had to sign off on this announcement. From Snr Col Ren Guoqiang, spokesperson of the Ministry of Defence (translation, excuse typos):

Question: Recently, the People's Liberation Army Daily published a comprehensive report on the advanced deeds of soldiers and soldiers of the Chinese and Indian border task forces in defending the country and guarding the border. What is China's intention to do this?

Answer: In the recent struggle to safeguard China's territorial sovereignty and peace and tranquility in the China-India border areas, China's border troops have emerged a number of heroes who love peace, are loyal to their mission and defend justice.

What needs to be pointed out is that in June last year, the Indian army illegally crossed the line, took the lead in provoking and violently attacking Chinese negotiators, and deliberately caused the conflict in the Galwan Valley, causing casualties on both sides. The Indian side bears full responsibility. After the conflict broke out, in order to safeguard the overall interests of relations between the two countries and the two militaries, China has exercised a high degree of restraint to cool down the situation and ease the tension. This demonstrates China's bearing and responsibility as a responsible major country.

However, the Indian side has repeatedly played up and hyped up the incident, distorted the truth, misled international public opinion and slandered the Chinese border troops.

History cannot be tampered with, heroes cannot be forgotten. The public reporting of heroic deeds by Chinese media is the media's responsibility to objectively report facts. It is conducive to clarifying the truth and setting the record straight so that the world can see clearly the rights and wrongs.

China's position on resolving the China-India border issue is clear, consistent and sincere. We are committed to resolving disputes through dialogue and negotiation, maintaining the overall interests of China-India relations between the two countries and the two militaries, easing the tension and restoring peace and tranquility in the China-India border areas as soon as possible.

Question: According to public reports, the Central Military Commission named the dead and wounded officers and soldiers as the heroes of defending China's border areas in the new era, and awarded two of them the honorary titles of "Commander of the Heroes of Defending China's Border Forces" and "Hero of Defending China's Border Forces" respectively. What is the connotation and significance of these titles? Could you give us more information on the preferential treatment?

Answer: The conferment of honorary titles is a major award given by the Chinese armed forces to exemplary units or individuals who have made outstanding achievements and special contributions in combat, training or other work, and who have played a significant influence and promoting role in the whole army.

The officers and soldiers reported publicly this time are steel soldiers who have been nurtured by Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era and Xi Jinping Thought on Strengthening the Military. They are outstanding representatives of revolutionary soldiers in the new era…

The Party, the state and the army attach great importance to the compensation and preferential treatment of servicemen, and in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Regulations on Compensation and Preferential Treatment for servicemen, we have done a good job in dealing with the aftermath of the compensation for heroes and martyrs. The Chinese people have a fine tradition of cherishing and promoting patriotism and revolutionary heroism, and the whole society has always admired, learned from, defended and cared for heroes. The motherland and the people will never forget the heroes and martyrs who died or were wounded in the service of the country. The families of our heroes and martyrs will be taken care of.

COMMENT: What do we make of the numbers? Two points: One, we have absolutely no way of knowing if 4 deaths is indeed what the PLA recorded in Galwan and the PLA has a track record from past conflicts of viewing this as an extremely political matter. Two, the number of fatalities sounds more or less plausible to me of at least being in the ball-park and not very widely off -- at least, this was similar to the number initially reported in the Indian media in June (before that number spiked up by August and September). Incidentally, this was also similar to what the PLA told their Indian counterparts shortly after the clash. The number I heard doing the rounds in June in Delhi was four or five including one officer, which turns out to be the case. The number of injured hasn’t been specified in the announcement, which only recognised the injured regimental officer. That figure is likely to be in the dozens, with Indian officials noting around 60 people being stretchered off.

The figure of 45 deaths that has been reported widely in India of late, it’s worth noting, has a somewhat questionable provenance. The number was reported last week in many Indian media outlets based on a report from the Russian news agency, TASS, from Beijing. This may have been a case of misreporting and TASS mixing up fatalities and casualties: indeed, TASS had last August reported 45 casualties (not deaths), which it seems to have used again for this report but then misreported this as deaths, leading to the confusion.

As an aside: turns out this WeChat image from last August turned out to be accurate, given the name on the tombstone. It’s quite remarkable that this leaked given the sensitivity of the matter, and circulated for a while on Chinese social media. It also, perhaps, suggests the PLA would perhaps be careful to not grossly underreport deaths as it would have egg on its face if more such images emerge later in Chinese social media. Incidentally, news of the deaths was trending all day and the second most discussed topic in Weibo. The general flavour of comments was not comparing the fatalities with India but anger that China lost four and demanding they be honoured, reminding us of the sensitivities of the matter.

Snehesh Philip at The Print reports the pullback from Pangong Lake has been completed and talks now move to the next point of tension:

 China has completely vacated the finger areas of the Pangong Tso while both Indian and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops have vacated the Kailash range on the southern banks of the lake, completing the disengagement process after nine months of standoff.

The next round of corps commander talks between both sides is scheduled to be held on Saturday morning at the Moldo Meeting Point on the Chinese side in Eastern Ladakh.

This will be the 10th Corps Commander talks, and the Indian side, which will comprise Naveen Srivastava, Joint Secretary (East Asia) from the Ministry of External Affairs, besides officials from the defence and security establishment, will be led by 14 Corps Commander Lt. Gen. P.G.K. Menon.

The Chinese delegation would be led by South Xinjiang military district chief Major General Liu Lin.

Sources in the defence and security establishment said both military commanders will review the disengagement process and deliberate on the remaining friction points.

While the disengagement process at Gogra and Hot Springs areas is likely to be tackled first, sources indicated that the strategic issue of Depsang Plains will take time.

“A disengagement process was earlier initiated in both Gogra and Hot Springs areas but the Chinese have not implemented it in full. So that should be agreed upon in the meeting tomorrow,” a source said. “The Depsang Plains is something that could take time as it precedes the current round of tensions, which began in April last year.”

ThePrint had in August last year reported that tensions at Depsang Plains can be traced to China’s 18-km incursion into the area, which is close to the strategic Daulat Beg Oldi base, in 2013, and the 2017 Doklam standoff.

Shubhajit Roy reports in Indian Express on the Quad meet:

Signalling a closer alignment with other partners, India Thursday officially used the term “Quad” for the first time to describe its grouping with the US, Australia and Japan, which is increasingly being seen as a possible counterweight to China‘s aggressive moves in the region.

India’s reference to “Quad” came in its official statement after a video conference of the group’s Foreign Ministers where New Delhi underlined its “commitment to upholding a rules-based international order, underpinned by respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, rule of law, transparency, freedom of navigation in the international seas and peaceful resolution of disputes” — a line seen as a reference to China’s moves.

Qian Feng at Tsinghua University weighed in on the US factor in India-China relations:

It should also be recalled that the US plays an important external factor in the development of China-India relations. But New Delhi is still cautious on whether to choose Beijing or Washington. This is because there are still many uncertain factors among the three countries. For example, although US President Joe Biden wants to strengthen cooperation with India through mechanisms such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), India itself has the pursuit of becoming a major power. New Delhi will not blindly follow Washington's will on some major international issues. Overall, China-India relations have shown signs of easing. Although India-US relations are improving, India will still want to maintain some strategic flexibility before the Biden administration releases its specific India policy. India does not want to be restrained by the Quad too soon. Therefore, China-India relations intrinsically depend on the two countries themselves.

And finally…

The Wall Street Journal continues its excellent reporting on the WHO investigations in Wuhan and the picture that seems to be emerging of the early days of the pandemic:

New evidence from China is affirming what epidemiologists have long suspected: The coronavirus likely began spreading unnoticed around the Wuhan area in November 2019, before it exploded in multiple different locations throughout the city in December.

Chinese authorities have identified 174 confirmed Covid-19 cases around the city from December 2019, said World Health Organization researchers, enough to suggest there were many more mild, asymptomatic or otherwise undetected cases than previously thought.

Many of the 174 cases had no known connection to the market that was initially considered the source of the outbreak, according to information gathered by WHO investigators during the four-week mission to China to examine the origins of the virus. Chinese authorities declined to give the WHO team raw data on these cases and potential earlier ones, team members said.

In examining 13 genetic sequences of the virus from December, Chinese authorities found similar sequences among those linked to the market, but slight differences in those of people without any link to it, according to the WHO investigators. The two sets likely began to diverge between mid-November and early December, but could possibly indicate infections as far back as September, said Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virologist on the WHO team.

That’s it for this issue. Have a good weekend, and the newsletter will be back on Monday.