China taking incremental, tactical actions to press claims at LAC: US

Noting that negotiations between Beijing and New Delhi are progressing “slowly” to resolve the 18-month military standoff along the Line of Actual Control in eastern Ladakh, the Biden administration has said China has been taking “incremental and tactical actions to press its claims” at the LAC with India.

In its annual report released November 3, the Department of Defense has underlined that China’s military has likely gained real-world operational and tactical experience during the standoff. It also said that “sometime in 2020”, China built a “large 100-home civilian village inside disputed territory between” between the Tibet Autonomous Region and Arunachal Pradesh.

“These and other infrastructure development efforts” along the India-China boundary “have been a source of consternation in the Indian government and media,” the report stated. “Despite agreements to disengage in the spring of 2021, both sides maintain troops along the LAC as Corps Commander-level negotiations progress slowly.”

Highlighting an incident after the clashes in Galwan Valley in June 2020, the report said “on September 8, 2020, a PLA (People’s Liberation Army) patrol fired warning shots at an Indian patrol near Pangong Lake — the first shots fired along the LAC in decades”.

Indian security establishment officials have also said that warning shots were fired by both sides around the time Indian and Chinese troops were jostling for heights in the Kailash Range and on the north bank of Pangong Tso.

The report mentioned that as of June 2021, “the PRC and India continue to maintain large-scale deployments along the LAC and make reparations to sustain these forces while disengagement negotiations have made limited progress”.

It said beginning May 2020, the PLA “launched incursions into customarily Indian-controlled territory across the border and has concentrated troops at several standoff locations along the LAC. In addition, a substantial reserve force from the Tibet and Xinjiang Military Districts were deployed to the interior of Western China to provide a rapid response”.

It mentioned the violent clash between Indian and Chinese troops in Galwan Valley in June 2020, “which led to the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers… the first loss of life on the LAC since 1975”.

In February 2021, China’s Central Military Commission (CMC) announced posthumous awards for four PLA soldiers, though the total number of PRC casualties remains unknown, the report stated.

In response to the clashes, China’s Western Theatre Command, which is responsible for the border with India, “led a large-scale mobilization and deployment of PLA forces along the LAC”.

It said China has “attempted to blame India for provoking the standoff through India’s increased infrastructure development near the LAC. Asserting that its deployments to the LAC were in response to Indian provocation, Beijing has refused to withdraw any forces until India’s forces have withdrawn behind the PRC’s version of the LAC and ceased infrastructure improvements in the area.”

But the report mentioned that China has also “expressed its aim to prevent the standoff from worsening into a wider military conflict” and has “voiced its intent to return bilateral relations with New Delhi to a state of economic and diplomatic cooperation it had perceived to be improving since the 2017 Doklam standoff”.

It stated that China’s state-controlled media “forcefully asserted China’s intent to refuse any territorial concessions demanded by India” but its officials, though their statements “had also sought unsuccessfully to prevent India from deepening its relationship with the United States during and subsequent to the standoff, while accusing India of being a mere ‘instrument’ of US policy in the region.”

China, it said, has also used the time to improve its infrastructure near the LAC, and even gain actual tactical and operational experience.

The standoff and “acute tensions” “resulted in significant” force build-up and establishment or enforcement of forward positions” along the LAC by the PLA Army (PLAA). “These tensions likely provided the PLAA with valuable real-world operational and tactical experience.”

At the “height” of the standoff the PLA “installed a fibre optic network in remote areas of the western Himalayas to provide faster communications and increased protection from foreign interception” and the PLA “field commanders view near-real-time ISR and situational data as well as redundant and reliable communications as essential to streamlining decision making processes and shortening response timelines”. ISR is intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance carried out by forces against enemies and potential threats.

Despite the Covid-19 pandemic and clashes with India, the report said “the PLAA accelerated its training and fielding of equipment from the already fast pace of recent years” and strove to “increase the realism of its training and the effectiveness of Opposition Force (OPFOR) units”.

It said the PLAA units “conducted extensive combined arms and joint training throughout 2020” and significant training “likely prepared the PLAA for any escalation of border tensions with India, as well as preparing to support a Taiwan contingency”. The PLAA “highlighted training for on potential contingencies in high-elevation regions (suggesting a possible focus on India given border clashes in 2020) and projecting forces across the Taiwan Strait”.

Providing a comparison, the report noted that China’s defence budget for 2021 is US$ 209 billion, and has “nearly doubled during the past 10 years”. For India, it noted that the defence budget is US$ 64.8 billion.

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