The assessment from U.S. intelligence contradicts China’s timeline of the bloody skirmish in the contested border region last week

by Paul D. Shinkman

A senior Chinese general authorized his forces to attack Indian troops in the Galwan River valley last week, resulting in a brutal skirmish that killed dozens and dramatically escalated tensions between the two Asian powerhouses, according to a U.S. intelligence assessment.

Gen. Zhao Zongqi, head of the Western Theatre Command and among the few combat veterans still serving in the People's Liberation Army, approved the operation along the contested border region of northern India and southwestern China, a source familiar with the assessment says on the condition of anonymity. Zhao, who has overseen prior standoffs with India, has previously expressed concerns that China must not appear weak to avoid exploitation by the United States and its allies, including in New Delhi, the source says, and saw the faceoff last week as a way to "teach India a lesson."

The assessment contradicts China's subsequent assertions about what happened last week. And it indicates the deadly and contentious incident – in which at least 20 Indian and 35 Chinese troops died, and reportedly a handful on each side were captured and subsequently released – was not the result of a tense circumstance that spiralled out of control, as has happened before, but rather a purposeful decision by Beijing to send a message of strength to India.

Yet that plan appears to have backfired, as the incident sparked widespread outrage in India that continues a week later. And Beijing's attempts to make India more amenable to future negotiations, including about contested territory, instead appear to have pushed the economic giant closer to the U.S.

Much is at stake, far beyond territorial control. The U.S. has pressured India for months to back away from employing Chinese tech company Huawei to help build its 5G infrastructure. In the aftermath of last week's incident, Indians were reportedly deleting Chinese social media app TikTok and destroying phones made in China.

"It does the very opposite of what China wanted," the source says. "This is not a victory for China's military."

Officials from India and China were scheduled to meet on Monday to discuss the fallout from the incident. It remains unclear the extent to which Chinese President Xi Jinping was involved in the decisions that led to last week's bloody encounter, though analysts familiar with Chinese military decision-making say he would have almost certainly known about the orders.

Troops had massed on both sides of the border in recent months in the northern India region of Ladakh and the southwestern Chinese region of Aksai Chin, causing global concerns of a potential escalation between the two. Private geo-intelligence firm Hawkeye 360 reported last week that satellite imagery from late May showed a build-up on the Chinese side of what appeared to be armed personnel carriers and self-propelled artillery.

Senior leaders from India and China agreed earlier in June to disarmament and a mutual withdrawal from the region, though both sides have accused the other of continuing to ship in and set up equipment required for a sustained military campaign. China has also accused India of building infrastructure such as roads in contested areas Beijing claims as its own.

On June 15, a senior Indian officer and two non-commissioned officers travelled unarmed to a meeting place where they expected to be met by a comparable delegation of Chinese troops to discuss the withdrawal, according to the source familiar with the U.S. assessment of the incident. Instead, dozens of Chinese troops were waiting with spiked bats and clubs and began an attack. Other Indian troops came in to support, leading to a melee that caused more casualties from the improvised weapons, rocks and falls from the steep terrain.

Border guards from both countries have clashed before. The Hong Kong Free Press in 2017 posted video it confirmed as genuine of a similar brawl in a separate part of the contested border.

Chinese officials released few details immediately of Monday's clash. Its state news services first criticized India for the attack and later adopted a more amenable approach.

That changed late last week, following persistent outrage from Indian officials and protests among its population. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian in a press conference Friday said blame lay solely with India for a series of what he considered provocative incursions into Chinese territory. He also said Indian leaders had pledged not to cross certain areas of the Galwan River, known as the Line of Actual Control, to build new facilities.

"Shockingly, on the evening of June 15, India's front-line troops, in violation of the agreement reached at the commander-level meeting, once again crossed the Line of Actual Control for deliberate provocation when the situation in the Galwan Valley was already easing, and even violently attacked the Chinese officers and soldiers who went there for negotiation, thus triggering fierce physical conflicts and causing casualties," Zhao Lijian said. "The adventurous acts of the Indian army have seriously undermined the stability of the border areas, threatened the lives of Chinese personnel, violated the agreements reached between the two countries on the border issue, and breached the basic norms governing international relations. China has lodged solemn representations and strong protests to the Indian side."

He added that China hopes India will continue to cooperate to reach new agreements and continue communication and coordination.

Analysts say it's clear the incident did not pan out as China intended, not in the least because its state media outlets have all but erased the incident from their pages in the week since it took place. The U.S. believes Zhao, the Chinese general who commanded the forces involved, held a memorial service for the PLA soldiers who died in the incident – an occasion that would normally attract some form of state-sponsored publicity. Instead, Chinese censors have since cracked down on social media posts about the incident, including ones that mention "defeat" and "humiliation" when describing the dead or injured Chinese troops.

Zhao, who fought with the PLA during its brief but devastating war with Vietnam in 1979, believes Chinese generals mismanaged that conflict, according to the U.S. assessment. He was also involved in the Doklam standoff in 2017 along a different part of the China-India border, which ended when Indian troops forcibly pushed back Chinese forces before both countries agreed to a mutual withdrawal.

The U.S. has remained largely quiet about the latest incident – likely reflecting a belief within the Trump administration that India and its vast economic resources are already increasingly turning to the U.S. for support.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement late Thursday night – early Friday morning in New Delhi – posting on Twitter, "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."

Reporters asked President Donald Trump about the incident shortly before he left Washington, D.C., Saturday afternoon for a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

"It's a very tough situation. We're talking to India. We're talking to China. They've got a big problem there," he said. "They've come to blows, and we'll see what happens. We'll try and help them out."