According to a collection of analysis papers that Indian officials say represent their government’s assessment of China’s behavior, the Indian government believes a deadly skirmish between its military and Chinese troops in contested part of the Himalayas portends a broader campaign by Beijing to envelop the South Asian power with its military and economic influence.
The recent clash in the Galwan River Valley, where both sides had inserted military forces in support of their own territorial claims, represents a nefarious and protracted effort by Beijing, says the document.
The Indian government links the latest encounter in Ladakh to what it describes as Beijing’s sweeping imperialist designs.
Its expansionism “eschews direct military action but resorts to coercive diplomacy by penetrating and undermining sovereignty and economies of many countries,” according to one of the documents.
In the June 15 clash, at least 20 Indian soldiers were killed, and American intelligence believes 35 Chinese troops also died.
The encounter witnessed hand-to-hand combat in the inhospitable region straddling northern India and southwest China. The circumstances leading to the clash remain not entirely clear, though each country faults the other for building infrastructure in the strategically consequential mountain region where the borders of India, China and Pakistan meet.
With this move, India believes Beijing seeks to grab greater control of the mountain regions along China’s southwest border – contested territory loosely demarcated by a tentative agreement known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC) – in an attempt to gain greater accessibility to its partner Pakistan.
A $60 billion deal between the two countries, known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor – part of China’s broader “Belt and Road” infrastructure initiative – would grant Beijing direct access over land to the sea through at least two routes in Pakistan.
Beyond expanding China’s commercial shipping network, the new routes would also allow Beijing to bypass the Straits of Malacca – a choke point between Malaysia and Indonesia that the U.S. Navy closely patrols with its regional allies and partners.
To create reliable access to those projects in Pakistan, the government in New Delhi believes China must first try to oust Indian troops occupying positions in the contested region and link the Chinese-controlled Aksai Chin area – near the site of the 15 June skirmish – with the contested Shaksgam Valley region more than 100 miles away toward Pakistan.
That troop presence “is preventing a military and territorial link up between China and Pakistan. And China sees it as a security risk to CPEC and all the related investments,” according to one of the papers.
Another paper points to the timing of the apparent Chinese attempt to gain control of a contested area in June, indicating it was linked to its intent to build more infrastructure in the region.
The extremely rugged terrain is only passable in the warmer months, meaning any major construction projects must begin in the springtime so they can be completed before snows set in by November.
The Indian assessment comes as the Trump administration has increased pressure on China, issuing retaliatory sanctions against Beijing after it imposed sanctions on a collection of U.S. lawmakers.
China has also moved swiftly to force greater control over Hong Kong with its imposition of national security law. China has warned of more sanctions against the U.S. government if it persists in creating legislation punishing Beijing for its moves on Hong Kong.
Analysts are of the view that China’s latest operations at the extreme front of territory it claims as its own represent a noticeable break from its prior activity.
“It’s clearly a new category of standoff,” says Taylor Fravel, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program and an expert on China-India border disputes.
“This time, you have China deploying more troops in more places at the same time. Clearly there is a change.”
It does appear that China is attempting to establish greater linkages in the region, Fravel says, adding, “The terrain is rugged, the connectivity has already been bad. They would need to build more.”
However, some analysts in the U.S. have taken issue with aspects of the Indian government assessment. Fravel questions the extent to which the June clash directly ties to China’s intentions in Pakistan or the CPEC corridor, not in the least because the great distances between the site of the skirmish and the border with Pakistan, more than 200 miles away.