The Chinese People’s Liberation Army has not yet withdrawn from “several forward positions” it seized following clashes with Indian troops along the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh last year, said a report prepared by a top United States military commander on Tuesday.
The submissions, made by US Indo-Pacific Command chief Admiral Phil Davidson to the Senate Armed Services Committee, contradict India’s position that the Chinese have pulled back troops from parts of the disputed Himalayan border, which it had occupied for much of the last nine months.
India and China last month announced they had completed an agreement for their soldiers to withdraw troops on either side of the Pangong Lake, where the clashes first occurred in May. At that time, the Ministry of External Affairs had said that New Delhi did not concede any territory as part of the disengagement agreement.
Noting that the Indian forces and the PLA have been engaged in a standoff along the Line of Actual Control since May 2020, the report, however, said, “the PLA has not yet withdrawn from several forward positions it seized following the initial clash, and the consequent escalation of tensions between the PRC [People’s Republic of China] and India has resulted in casualties on both sides”.
The US commander described Chinese aggression along the LAC as a manifestation of Beijing’s “expansionary territorial ambitions”. He stated that the “large scale PLA mobilisation”, which “is particularly notable considering the elevation, terrain, and distance involved”, in the region has stoked regional concerns that China “will increasingly use force to achieve desired outcomes”.
Defence expert Sushant Singh said the initial clash the report referred to meant that “the PLA has not withdrawn from several forward positions it seized on the Indian side after May 2020”.
It would also rule out Depsang plains, one of the most strategically important areas in the region, “as we are repeatedly told that the crisis predates May 2020,” Singh added.
Depsang is where India has the world’s highest landing strip and where, according to defence expert Ajai Shukla, the Chinese military had entered 15 to 18 kilometers inside Indian-held areas.
The defence expert said that “such a clear articulation” from the top American military commander in the Indo-Pacific to a Senate Committee “tells us something” and “leaves us with questions which have not been answered satisfactorily till date”.
The report by the top US military official also came ahead of India’s participation in the first online summit of the Quad bloc of nations on March 12, which will also be attended by the new US President Joe Biden. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Japan Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga are the two other participants of the Quad.
‘India likely to deepen engagement with Quad,’ says Davidson
Meanwhile, during a Congressional hearing, Davidson also suggested to US legislators that as a result of recent developments along the LAC, India is likely to deepen its engagement with the Quad group of countries “in the very near term”, PTI reported.
“I think you will see India in the very near term...remain committed to their non-aligned approach, but I think they will deepen their engagement with the Quad, and I think that’s a key strategic opportunity for us, Australia, and Japan,” Davidson said, while responding to a question from from US Senator Angus King.
Davidson also indicated that the US provided inputs to the Indian side during the standoff with China. “We have provided some information to India in that crisis...cold-weather closing, clothing, some other equipment...some things like that...and over the last several years, we have been deepening our maritime cooperation,” he told the US’ Senate Foreign Relations Committee, according to PTI.
“I think certainly the activities along the Line of Actual Control with China has opened their [India’s] eyes to what cooperative effort with others might mean for their own defensive needs,” Davidson said, suggesting to the committee that New Delhi might shift from its “non-aligned approach”.