Eye on China is a weekly bulletin offering news and analysis related to the Middle Kingdom from an Indian interests perspective.
I. An Inflection Point
So much has happened through the week. In structuring the newsletter this week, I’ve decided to not go back and cover the details of the events as they unfolded or delve into too much commentary. My colleague Suyash Desai’s Takshashila PLA Insight does well to capture all these details. I am going to focus on the bigger picture and official statements.
In terms of the ground situation, there are multiple reports based on imagery and source-based information. But this by Rajat Pandit in TOI captures things as well as perhaps possible given information availability. He writes: “There is still some lack of clarity about the exact ground situation in the Galwan Valley region of eastern Ladakh. But there is little doubt that Chinese soldiers have built dozens of fortifications and bunkers after physically occupying an almost 8-km stretch of what India considers its own territory along the Pangong Tso since early-May. Chinese troops have also taken control of the heights to dominate ‘Finger-4 to 8’ (mountainous spurs) area on the north bank of Pangong Tso, adroitly utilising the time when bilateral military talks were underway on the troop confrontations at Patrolling Points 14, 15 and 17 in the Galwan Valley and Gogra-Hot Springs areas.”
Amid this, the two sides appear to be talking. Sushant Singh reports, citing unidentified sources, for the Indian Express that “military talks will be held at the level of Corps Commander in Ladakh, where the Indian side will be led by GOC 14 Corps Lt General Harinder Singh while the diplomatic talks in Beijing will be led by India’s ambassador to China, Vikram Misri. Preliminary discussions to finalise the schedule of talks are currently on between the two sides.”
Reports on Casualties
So what we do know is that there was a clash on June 15 in the Galwan Valley region. 20 Indian soldiers were killed, 76 were injured and 10 were captured by the PLA but later returned. On the issue of the 10 soldiers who were captured, do note Chinese MoFA’s statement on June 19: “My information is that at present there are no Indian personnel detained on the Chinese side,” said Zhao Lijian.
There’s no data about Chinese casualties, and there’s been no clear official confirmation either, despite the multiple source-based leaks and fake forwards that are doing the rounds in the Indian media. Much of the reportage in India using Western Theatre Command spokesperson Zhang Shuli’s June 16 remarks or subsequent MoFA statements. But these are fairly cautiously worded. Here’s Zhang: “The Indian troops had violated their promises and once again crossed the Line of Actual Control for illegal activities, and deliberately provoked and attacked the Chinese forces, thus triggering fierce physical conflicts between the two sides and causing casualties.” And MoFA’s line has been that Indian soldiers “violently attacked the Chinese officers and soldiers who went there for negotiation, thus triggering fierce physical conflicts and causing casualties.” Neither of these really acknowledge Chinese casualties.
Some media outlets in China, however, have clearly said that there were Chinese casualties, such as Global Times and this China Daily editorial: “China has not released details of the deaths and injuries on its side, in an attempt to avoid any notion of winners or losers and prevent any escalation of tensions, but with casualties on both sides and tensions having been simmering for a while before boiling over, the incident cannot but raise worries that the situation risks running out of control.”
In terms of official statements from India, in its second statement on Tuesday, the Indian army had said that there were casualties on both sides. On Saturday, although it’s not an official government statement, Minister of state for road transport and highways and former Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General VK Singh characterised the events in Galwan as follows while speaking to Hindustan Times.
“I’m quite sure they must be disposing of the dead also in a manner that others don’t come to know. There was talk of 43 persons in the beginning, in the media. I would say whoever put out that figure, based on what the troops had said, is the minimum. There may be more…In the melee, where there are over 600 people just jostling, scuffling, pushing and hitting each other and in a dark night some people got separated; their people on our side and our people on their side. But in the morning they were exchanged. I was told that one of their chaps said we have treated your people well and our chaps said we have also treated your people well.”
In another interaction with TV News24, he reportedly hinted at at least 40 PLA casualties.
My take on all this, as shared with The Quint: I don’t think we should expect Beijing to announce numbers of casualties and fatalities. It’s not how the system operates. But rest assured that the people who need to know in China will know. Political pressure in that system comes from Party elites and not necessarily the public. If at sometime we do see figures leaked in China, it’ll be a purposeful decision to stoke public anger. This might indicate a willingness to escalate.
Foreign Ministers Speak
In terms of how both governments are framing the clash, the readouts of the call between the foreign ministers on June 17 offer an interesting contrast. First, both readouts end with an agreement to return to the June 6 consensus and work based on that going forward. China says “the two sides agreed to fairly address the serious situation caused by the conflict in the Galwan Valley, jointly observe the consensus reached at the commander-level meeting between the two sides, cool down the situation on the ground as soon as possible, and maintain peace and tranquility in the border area in accordance with the agreements already reached between the two countries.” MEA says: “At the conclusion of the discussion, it was agreed that the overall situation would be handled in a responsible manner, and both sides would implement the disengagement understanding of 6 June sincerely. Neither side would take any action to escalate matters and instead, ensure peace and tranquillity as per bilateral agreements and protocols.”
But there are some points to note (emphasis added). The MEA’s readout says: “EAM conveyed the protest of the Government of India in the strongest terms on the violent face-off in Galwan Valley on 15 June 2020. He recalled that at the meeting of senior Military Commanders held on 6th June, an agreement was reached on de-escalation and disengagement along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Ground commanders were meeting regularly to implement this consensus throughout the last week. While there was some progress, the Chinese side sought to erect a structure in Galwan valley on our side of the LAC. While this became a source of dispute, the Chinese side took pre-meditated and planned action that was directly responsible for the resulting violence and casualties. It reflected an intent to change the facts on ground in violation of all our agreements to not change the status quo.”
The Chinese readout says: “on the evening of 15 June, the Indian frontline border forces openly broke the consensus reached at the commander-level meeting between the two sides. When the situation in the Galwan Valley had deescalated, the Indian forces crossed the Line of Actual Control again, made deliberate provocations and even violently attacked the Chinese soldiers who went for negotiations. This subsequently led to fierce physical clashes and resulted in casualties. The adventurism of the Indian army seriously violated agreements on border issues between the two countries and severely violated basic norms governing international relations. China once again lodges its strong protest to the Indian side. We urge the Indian side to conduct a thorough investigation, hold the violators accountable, strictly discipline the frontline troops and immediately stop all provocative acts to ensure such incidents will not occur again. The Indian side must not misjudge the current situation and must not underestimate China’s firm determination to safeguard our territorial sovereignty.”
Both ministers will be participating in the Russia-India-China foreign ministers’ meeting next week.
Friday Night Chaos
On Friday, Indian Prime Minister spoke at the all-party meeting about the situation along the LAC. His remarks led to a controversy, particularly this statement: “neither is anyone inside our territory nor is any of our post captured.” A day later, there was a clarification from the Prime Minister’s Office. It said that “Attempts are being made in some quarters to give a mischievous interpretation to remarks by the Prime Minister at the All-Party Meeting (APM) yesterday.” The clarification further added: “The Prime Minister’s observations that there was no Chinese presence on our side of the LAC pertained to the situation as a consequence of the bravery of our armed forces.” The clarification also states that “Chinese forces have come in much larger strength to the LAC and that the Indian response is commensurate.” A point to note is that these remarks and clarifications are being censored on WeChat and Weibo, with even posts by the Indian embassy not visible. Also the hashtag #中印边境冲突# or China-India Border Conflict now has some 2.19 billion views on Weibo.
Soon after Prime Minister Modi’s remarks on Friday, the Chinese foreign ministry issued a detailed statement, outlining its version of a Step-by-Step Account of the Galwan Valley Incident. The statement claims the “Galwan Valley is located on the Chinese side of the Line of Actual Control.” It accuses India of building infrastructure despite Chinese protests. It says that by “morning of May 6, the Indian border troops, who have crossed the LAC by night and trespassed into China’s territory, have built fortification and barricades, which impeded the patrol of Chinese border troops,” thereby triggering the standoff. And on last week’s events, it reiterates the earlier stated stance that Indian troops “violated the agreements” and the consensus, and repeats the demand of “a thorough investigation.” Responding to this, the MEA issued its detailed version of the clashes. It calls Chinese claims “exaggerated and untenable,” which “are not in accordance with China’s own position in the past.” It adds: “Since early May 2020, the Chinese side has been hindering India’s normal, traditional patrolling pattern in this area. This had resulted in a face-off…” It further states: “the Chinese side departed from these understandings (June 6th) in respect of the LAC in the Galwan Valley area and sought to erect structures just across the LAC. When this attempt was foiled, Chinese troops took violent actions on 15 June 2020 that directly resulted in casualties.”
A number of governments around the world have issued statements on the clashes.
Russian Presidential Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “Certainly, we are watching with great attention what is happening on the Chinese-Indian border. We believe that this is a very alarming report. But we consider that the two countries are capable of taking necessary steps to prevent such situations in the future and to ensure that there is predictability and stability in the region and that this is a safe region for nations, first of all, China and India.”
Japan’s foreign ministry: “The Government of Japan’s position is that it is closely monitoring the situation, as it may have an impact on regional stability. The Government of Japan hopes that this situation will be resolved peacefully through dialogue between the concerned parties.”
Donald Trump said: “It’s a very tough situation. We’re talking to India. We’re talking to China. They’ve got a big problem there…They’ve come to blows, and we’ll see what happens. We’ll try and help them out.” Mike Pompeo said: “We extend our deepest condolences to the people of India for the lives lost as a result of the recent confrontation with China. We will remember the soldiers’ families, loved ones, and communities as they grieve.” This story has a collection of some international reactions, including from the Australian High Commissioner to India, the French Ambassador and the Foreign Minister of the Maldives.
Nepal’s foreign ministry said: “In the context of recent developments in the Galwan valley area between our friendly neighbors India and China, Nepal is confident that both the neighboring countries will resolve, in the spirit of good neighborliness, their mutual differences through peaceful means in favor of bilateral, regional and world peace and stability.”
Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen told Dhaka Tribune: “Our position is always clear. We want peace, not conflict. Both China and India are our friends. We do hope both China and India will de-escalate the situation immediately and resolve all issues through negotiations.”
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said: “China tried its best to resolve the [border] issue amicably, and through talks. But India did not take it with the same spirit, and continued constructions in the disputed region, which led to a bloody clash…This is an extraordinary situation, which has been seen in the form of a bloody clash after several decades. This clearly is the result of India’s Hindutva ideology.”