A year on, unanswered questions, sparse details in China’s accounts of Galwan clash

June 14, 2021 10:13 pm | Updated 10:13 pm IST

Trouble spot: A satellite image taken in May 2020 shows a PLA camp in the Galwan Valley. Maxar Technologies/AP

Trouble spot: A satellite image taken in May 2020 shows a PLA camp in the Galwan Valley. Maxar Technologies/AP

A year after the June 15, 2020 clash in the Galwan Valley, China’s official accounts of what led to the worst violence on the India-China border since 1967 still leave many questions unanswered, revealing few and selective details that appear aimed at conveying a carefully crafted message to the domestic audience.

While Chinese officials have said repeatedly in recent months “the rights and wrongs are clear” of what led to the LAC tensions, Indian officials say Beijing is, in fact, yet to provide any clarity or credible explanation of its actions last year, starting with mobilising a large number of troops in April following annual military exercises and deploying them close to the LAC, not just in Galwan Valley.

That mobilisation in April, coming at a time when India had to delay its own summer exercises because of the COVID-19 outbreak, is one of several key missing details in China’s official accounts so far.

A reading of all of China’s public statements issued in the year since the Galwan clash underlines a two-fold approach in Beijing’s messaging: a focus only on the Galwan Valley with little to no mention of the other troubled spots on the LAC, where PLA transgressions led to multiple stand-offs, and since February this year, a more proactive propaganda effort aimed at emphasising the bravery of China’s troops in Galwan and portraying Beijing not as the aggressor, but as defending its sovereignty.

Since this year, China has also firmly clamped down on any questioning of the official narrative. Earlier this month, Chinese authorities sentenced Qiu Ziming, once of at least half a dozen people who have been detained over comments on Galwan, to eight months in prison “for defaming martyrs”. He was the first person charged under a new amendment to the Criminal Law that introduced penalties for “insulting” or “slandering” national heroes or martyrs. Mr. Qiu had questioned why India had promptly recognised the loss of 20 Indian soldiers in Galwan Valley but China was yet to fully reveal casualties, with the first announcement of honours coming only eight months later.

Sparse details

In the past year, China has issued two details statements on the LAC, a “step-by-step account” from the Foreign Ministry on June 19, 2020 and accounts in February 2021 published in the official PLA Daily after the Chinese government revealed it had suffered casualties as it announced military honours for five soldiers, four of them recognised posthumously. The PLA Daily had not reported on the June 15 clash in its immediate aftermath, or on China’s first combat casualties in 35 years, throughout 2020.

The first Chinese account of tensions came in the Communist Party-run Global Times on May 18, which said Chinese troops had "bolstered border control measures and made necessary moves in response to India's recent, illegal construction of defence facilities across the border into Chinese territory in the Galwan Valley region.” The report said “since early May, India has been crossing the boundary line in the Galwan Valley region and entering Chinese territory.”

The June 19 statement from the Chinese government said “since April the Indian border troops have unilaterally and continuously built roads, bridges and other facilities at the LAC in the Galwan Valley.” It referred to the early morning of May 6 as the start of more serious tensions, alleging the Indian troops had “crossed the LAC by night”.

Indian officials said the reverse had happened: that Indian troops had since April been prevented from reaching Patrolling Point 14, which they go up to every summer, and that construction of facilities had taken place on India’s side of PP14. Satellite images later released suggested the June 15 clash had happened near PP14. Most Indian patrolling points lie short of the LAC on India’s side.

Video release

In February, the announcement of military honours for five soldiers was accompanied by the release of a video on Chinese state media from Galwan Valley.

The video clips, which triggered an outpouring of anger in China, showed Indian soldiers crossing the river and Chinese troops holding their ground. The message was to show India as the aggressor, which is the widely prevailing view in China. Left unsaid was the context of the video, in which Indian troops were trying to push back Chinese troops who had come up to PP14.

The PLA Daily’s first detailed account, published in February 2021, focused on the valour of Chinese troops and those honoured, which remains the current focus of state media coverage.

"They arrived at the front line and fought to the death with their opponents, resolutely forcing back those who crossed the line,” the newspaper said, saying that the Chinese were “vastly outnumbered”. "Reinforcements arrived in time, in one fell swoop the offenders dispersed, and in a major victory, the foreign troops collapsed,” the newspaper said, in its first ever account that came more than eight months after the clash.

On June 11, in the lead up to the one-year anniversary of the clash which also comes just two weeks before China is planning a major military parade to mark the centenary of the Communist Party on July 1, state broadcaster CCTV interviewed Qi Fabao, the regimental commander who was among the five honoured in February. Mr. Qi spoke at a military meeting, appearing with “the scar on his head clearly seen", the Global Times reported. Chen Hongjun, one of the four soldiers who was named as being killed in the clash, will be among 29 people honoured with a medal on the July 1 anniversary.

The continued focus on Galwan, while the still unresolved tensions in Depsang, Demchok, Gogra and Hot Springs, remain almost entirely ignored in the coverage, is one key element of the broader messaging effort, as acknowledging multiple stand-offs, as well as the fact that it is India and not China that is demanding a return to status quo in the slow-moving negotiations, would undermine the Chinese military’s central claim of not being the aggressor.

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