Protesters burn the Chinese flag and an effigy of Chinese President Xi Jinping in Kolkata

Documents obtained by U.S. News offer insight into the Indian government’s thinking on the deadly skirmish last month between forces in a contested region of the Himalayas

by Paul D Shinkman

The Indian government believes a deadly skirmish between its military and Chinese troops in an isolated and contested part of the Himalayas portends a broader campaign by Beijing to envelop the South Asian power with its military and economic influence, according to documents obtained by U.S. News.

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, according to a collection of analysis papers that Indian officials say represent their government's assessment of China's behaviour.

The Indian government links the latest encounter in a region it calls 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, which has not been previously published.

Their conclusion is supported by some analysts. And it comes amid U.S. fears that Beijing has successfully exploited the international fallout from the coronavirus pandemic to secure territorial claims along other portions of its border, including in the South China Sea and Hong Kong. The moves have prompted retaliatory measures from the Trump administration that have escalated this week.

At least 20 Indian soldiers perished in the June 15 clash, and American intelligence believes 35 Chinese troops also died. The encounter was marked by vicious 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, such as encampments or roads, in the strategically consequential mountain region where the borders of India, China and Pakistan meet.

The incident bore some similarities to prior skirmishes between the two countries, including in 2010 and 2014, as well as a brawl between Indian and Chinese forces in a separate part of the contested border in 2017, footage of which the Hong Kong Free Press published that year. Those incidents, though violent at times, ended relatively peacefully and swiftly.

With the latest offensive, 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 – in an attempt to gain greater accessibility to its partner Pakistan, India's chief rival.

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 June border 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 ratcheted up pressure on China in recent weeks, issuing retaliatory sanctions against Beijing after it imposed sanctions on a collection of U.S. lawmakers. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced earlier this week the U.S. intends to provide greater support for its allies in the South China Sea – not directly breaking from the official American stance on neutrality regarding contested claims in that part of the world but sending a clear warning to China.

China has also moved swiftly to force greater control over Hong Kong, the former British colony that was supposed to maintain a degree of autonomy from Beijing for decades after coming under Chinese control in 1997. China on Tuesday warned of more sanctions against the U.S. government if it persists in creating legislation punishing Beijing for its moves on Hong Kong.

Analysts say 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.

Also, the conflict appears to have diffused. Chinese and Indian officials have met multiple times since the June 15 clash to discuss mutual withdrawals from the region but have so far not reached a complete agreement. Both sides have engaged in an initial phase of withdrawing from the extreme front lines of the contested territory, though they maintain their troop presences in the region, leading analysts to believe both sides are negotiating in good faith.

Officials have previously speculated that China believes it underestimated the effect of its recent troops deployments and fears that the move inadvertently upset India's traditional balance of foreign, potentially driving it closer to the U.S. and its partners.