A United States intelligence assessment has said it has reason to believe that China deliberately provoked India with the latest incursion into the Indian territory at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh towards the end of August.
On the intervening night of 29 and 30 August, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops tried to occupy a strategic height at the southern region of the Pangong Tso lake in Eastern Ladakh. However, the Indian Army pre-empted the Chinese move and mobilised its forces to capture the heights near the area where Chinese troops are camped.
The US believes that after the failure of the Chinese attempt to capture the territory, Beijing remains enraged that its local commander withdrew forces when a physical conflict appeared imminent.
The recent face-off comes months after June 15 clashes between Indian and Chinese troops in the contested region, resulting in the death of 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of PLA troops.
Both India and China blame the other for initiating the latest clash.
As per a source familiar with the latest incident, the U.S. believes Indian forces have prevented any loss of ground following the latest faceoff 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.
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 behaviour.
The US 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 June 15 violence has pushed New Delhi into closer cooperation with the U.S.
“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.”
A spokesperson speaking on the condition of anonymity said the latest skirmish serves as the latest example of “a clear pattern of Beijing acting increasingly aggressively, both domestically and abroad.”
“The only way to stop these provocations is by standing up to Beijing,” the spokesperson said. “From the Taiwan Strait to Xinjiang, from the South China Sea to the Himalayas, from cyberspace to international organizations, we are dealing with a Chinese Communist Party that seeks to repress its own people and bully its neighbors.”
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.
Though the 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.