China Provoked India in Latest Clash, U.S. Believes
THE U.S. BELIEVES CHINA deliberately provoked India with a new incursion into contested territory earlier this week and that Beijing remains enraged that its local commander withdrew forces when a physical conflict appeared imminent, according to an American intelligence assessment.
The new details shared with U.S. News follow reports of a skirmish in recent days along the two nuclear powers’ shared border, months after a deadly melee erupted in another contested region some 100 miles away. Both India and China blame the other for initiating the latest clash.
The U.S. believes Indian forces have prevented any loss of ground, according to a source familiar with the assessment who spoke on the condition of anonymity, following the latest faceoff, which Indian and Chinese officials revealed early Monday took place at the southern end of the Pangong Tso Lake. That remote region high in the Himalayas is considered to be within India’s territorial control.
The Indian troops were better prepared to respond to the Chinese provocation, the U.S. believes, after bolstering their presence in northern India following the deadly June clash in the Galwan River Valley region that resulted in at least 20 Indian deaths and as many as 35 Chinese casualties. The assessment does not conclude that Chinese forces were the first to act provocatively in this case, but the U.S. has chosen to support India’s side because of Beijing’s past provocative behavior.
American intelligence officials and local analysts remain puzzled about the timing of the latest clash, which comes as China seeks to cool tensions – or has given the appearance it wishes to do so – and improve ties with India amid fears the latest violence has pushed New Delhi into closer cooperation with the U.S.
Indeed, Indian officials will meet virtually with their counterparts from the U.S., Japan and Australia – a group known as “The Quad” – later this month for a summit that Indian sources say will likely result in a new intelligence-sharing arrangement among the major powers. The result of the 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue and its Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement will not only equip the Indian armed forces with the vital intelligence it needs to better understand Chinese military positions and movements, but it will serve as an important step in formalizing a partnership with New Delhi that Washington would like to see grow even stronger at China’s expense.
“We are staggered at the timing of the Chinese actions,” according to the intelligence assessment, “but shouldn’t complain either if Beijing shoots itself in the foot.”
The State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Defense Department believes China has over the last decade prioritized military spending to focus on expanding its capabilities to operate in contested regions along its entire border, including India and neighboring Bhutan to disputed waterways in the East and South China seas.
“China’s leaders use tactics short of armed conflict to pursue China’s objectives. China calibrates its coercive activities to fall below the threshold of provoking armed conflict with the United States, its allies and partners, or others in the Indo-Pacific region,” according to the latest version of the Pentagon’s annual Military China Report, which was released Tuesday and accounts for China’s activities and posture as of the end of 2019.
The U.S. intelligence assessment concludes Chinese troops this time were building encampments in contested space – a tactic both sides have employed to gain a foothold they can later expand into infrastructure to support broader operations in the future. A “scuffle” that came close to erupting into an all-out brawl commenced after Indian troops arrived, though officers on both sides reportedly withdrew their forces before actual fighting began. A Chinese officer with the equivalent rank of a colonel in the U.S. military gave the order for his forces to withdraw, U.S. intelligence believes, against the wishes of higher military commands in Beijing.
A spokesman for China’s Western Theatre Command – which oversees operations along its southwestern border with India – in a statement late Monday was clear that Indian forces first carried out “provocative military movements.” The action amounted to “a blatant provocative move that seriously infringed on China’s territorial sovereignty, and undermined the peace and stability in the China-India border area,” Chinese state media reported.
Though the sprawling border region between India and China remains contested, it is heavily regulated by a series of talks and agreements designed to deconflict potential conflict. The arrangements have made deadly conflicts involving armed troops very rare.
Chinese President Xi Jinping would have to have known about each of the latest clashes in advance due to the nature of Chinese military decision making. U.S. intelligence officials now believe that he may have created a “cycle of provocations” and doesn’t know how to extract the Chinese army without appearing to show weakness.
Beijing has scrambled in recent weeks to repair its relations with India, the fellow Asian economic powerhouse whose markets have become a signature prize of Chinese and American investment in recent months.
Analysts at the time believed Chinese forces did not anticipate the extent to which the June land-grab would enrage the Indian people, causing reverberations that left the central government in New Delhi with no choice but to escalate its response, which included banning Chinese apps from phones in India.
Since then, Chinese officials have tried to repair the damage. At least two tracks of talks between India and China have emerged specifically designed to ease border tensions in recent weeks, including one between brigade-level commanders scheduled to take place Tuesday. Foreign Minister Wang Yi led a five-nation tour through Europe last week in an attempt to soothe tensions, particularly the increasing skepticism of using Chinese telecom giant Huawei to help build 5G networks. His comments were widely seen as an attempt to avoid Chinese-Indian border clashes from defining the two countries’ relations – at least from a European perspective – and emphasizing the potential for greater cooperation.
That context makes the latest violence all the more curious.
“The timing is puzzling given the upcoming U.S.-India talks and what appeared to be some recent – if not particularly successful – efforts to reduce tensions along the border,” says Sheena Greitens, associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs.
“One effect of the standoff has been to add a sense of urgency to efforts to strengthen U.S.-India ties, especially in terms of defense cooperation,” Greitens adds. “But developments at the 2+2 shouldn’t be viewed as a knee-jerk response to this week’s flare-up: There’s a long-standing interest in the United States in strengthening ties with India in its own right.”