The People’s Liberation Army has conducted more than 100 joint exercises so far this year and has stepped up its training along the disputed border with India, the Chinese defence ministry has said. Military spokesman Ren Guoqiang told a regular press conference on Thursday that operations had continued despite the Covid-19 pandemic and included a “record-breaking” high-altitude drill involving more than 1,000 troops from 20 units earlier this month.

Ren said the exercise, which included the use of drones and was “aimed at boosting the border troops’ combat capabilities in an extremely cold, tough and risky environment”, was part of the celebrations of the Communist Party’s centenary. He also said that the exercises included both militia units and regular forces to strengthen their combat capabilities.

The Indian newspaper The Hindu recently reported that the PLA had been training new militia units of Tibetans near Pangong Tso, the site of a deadly clash between Chinese and Indian soldiers last year.

The report said the militia mix hi-tech equipment such as drones and traditional means of transport like horses and mules.

Just hours after the bloody clash in the Galwan Valley on June 15 last year, the PLA’s Tibetan military command announced that it was establishing five militia units. Video footage shown by state broadcaster China Central Television suggested the units consisted of local Tibetans.

The Chinese and Indian militaries started to disengage in April, but the mutual suspicion and mistrust means that around 100,000 soldiers remain on both sides of the Line of Actual Control – the de facto border. Song Zhongping, a Hong Kong-based military commentator and former PLA instructor, said training local people as militia was the most effective way to help regular armed forces conduct reconnaissance and logistics operations.

“The physical fitness of Tibetans makes it easier for them to acclimatise to the high altitude than regular PLA soldiers,” Song said. “They could be good partners.”

Song said the militias could be the PLA’s response to India’s recruitment of exiled Tibetans to form a special operations force.

Beijing claims the Indian military has trained more than 10,000 exiled Tibetans to pose as local herdsmen in an effort to infiltrate China’s borders.

Ren also told the press conference that the military was using more ammunition in its live-fire drills compared with recent years, without providing figures.

A military source said the ministry would need more time to count the ammunition used in the drills, which included some shells and missiles that had expired and were due to be destroyed.

“The PLA has speeded up weapon replacement in recent years, and some expiring shells and missiles have been fired in passing during drills,” the source, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic, said.

“More military drills will be conducted later this year as the army needs to catch up with last year’s planned drills that had to be cancelled because of Covid-19.”

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