It has been over two years since Chinese incursions in the summer of 2020 along the disputed India-China boundary in eastern Ladakh led to a series of skirmishes that left dozens of soldiers dead on both sides. Yet unlike a February 2019 confrontation with Pakistan, which resulted in an Indian airstrike on Pakistani territory and a tense standoff between the two nuclear-armed neighbors, the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears content to relegate the tensions with China over Ladakh to the margins of national consciousness.
The sum total of New Delhi’s response to China’s violations of treaties and international law has been to ban over 200 Chinese apps; capture and then withdraw from some strategic heights overlooking the disputed border—known as the Line of Actual Control, or LAC—in Ladakh; impose restrictions on Chinese foreign direct investment in India; and move closer to the United States, which China sees as its principal strategic competitor. All the while, it has let China slow-roll the interminable bilateral negotiations at the military and diplomatic levels to resolve the dispute at the border. The talks have so far led to disengagement from only a few locations along the LAC, while the other part of the process aimed at deescalation and the reduction of forces built up along the LAC since the clashes has yet to take place at all.
Although External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar frequently raises the issue of China’s aggressive behavior—and the concerns it causes New Delhi—in Western forums, India has been less than fully committed to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the Quad, as a platform to challenge Chinese assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific. What’s more, New Delhi has also been a willing partner in China’s attempts at faux multilateralism in the form of the Russia-India-China trilateral dialogue mechanism and the BRICS forum comprising Brazil, Russia and South Africa, in addition to India and China.
The Indian government’s lack of a coherent China policy became apparent long before the 2020 crisis. Consider, for example, that Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited the heads of both the unofficial Taiwanese representation in New Delhi and the Tibetan government-in-exile to his first swearing-in ceremony in 2014. By contrast, at his second swearing-in in 2019, both officials had disappeared from the invitation list.
In between, during Modi’s first term, he maintained the previous Congress-led government’s opposition to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. As subsequent events in India’s neighborhood—including China’s 99-year lease on Hambantota port in Sri Lanka as well as that country’s current economic crisis—have demonstrated, this opposition is not without its merits. However, Modi’s government has also frequently demonstrated its lack of understanding, to the point of appearing gullible, when it comes to the domestic drivers of Chinese foreign policy.
It imagined, for instance, that Chinese President Xi Jinping would fulfil his promise of economic largesse to South Asia, with India as a focus of Chinese investments. Instead, as it happened, Xi’s first state visit to New Delhi in September 2014 coincided with the incursion of People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, troops in the Chumar area of eastern Ladakh. In 2017, another major Chinese incursion took place in the contested Bhutanese territory of Doklam, a remote area of the Himalayas to which China also lays claim. Indian forces sought to push back the PLA under New Delhi’s bilateral security arrangement with Bhutan, but the stand-off lasted over 70 days and also sparked a physical clash between Indian and Chinese troops in eastern Ladakh, in the Pangong Tso area.
Modi’s government has frequently demonstrated its lack of understanding, to the point of appearing gullible, when it comes to the domestic drivers of Chinese foreign policy.
But despite the pattern of Chinese transgressions along the LAC in recent years, New Delhi did not adjust its own policy. Following the Doklam standoff, China continued to build up PLA strength and infrastructure in the region, if not at the actual site of the clash itself, and even built villages inside Bhutanese territory. The Indian government has, however, chosen to remain silent.
New Delhi, in fact, appeared to consciously dial down the pressure on China following the Doklam standoff, undertaking a series of “informal summits” between Modi and Xi beginning in April 2018. The first of these was touted as a “reset” of the India-China relationship but resembled more an attempt by the Indian government to redirect attention away from the obvious security challenge China posed, and back to the more familiar—and potentially more electorally rewarding—issue of Pakistan as national elections drew near. Sure enough, Modi’s decision to launch an airstrike on Pakistani territory in response to the Pulwama attack of February 2019—in which 40 Indian troops in Indian-administered Kashmir were killed in a suicide bombing by a Pakistan-based terrorist group—won him massive electoral dividends. His ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, won reelection that May with an even larger majority in parliament.
However, despite this success, Modi displayed no greater confidence in dealing with China. Instead, he participated in a second informal summit with Xi in October 2019 in the hopes that the two leaders’ “strategic guidance” to their respective militaries to refrain from provocative actions on the LAC would defuse tensions. Less than six months later, Chinese troops took advantage of India’s distraction in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic to launch their incursion in Ladakh, abruptly occupying several areas across the LAC, including previously undisputed areas such as Galwan.
Since then, the Indian government has been considerably reticent about either confronting China about the ground realities in eastern Ladakh, or acknowledging them publicly.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has further complicated matters for the Indian government. While New Delhi has condemned specific instances of Russian atrocities, such as the civilian killings at Bucha, it has also abstained from all resolutions introduced by the West at the United Nations Security Council to condemn the invasion. India has its reasons for its reluctance to take sides between Russia and the West, including a heavy dependence on Russia for its arms supplies, a general mistrust of the U.S. despite closer ties in recent years and a preference for a more multipolar world order with India as a pole—an unlikely outcome with either the U.S. or China as the dominant global power.
However, in the process and despite their differences, Beijing has, by virtue of its diplomatic outreach and propaganda efforts, made it look like India’s differences with the U.S. and the European Union on Russia, as well as New Delhi’s concerns over hypocrisy in the West’s appeals, are signs that India has more in common with Beijing than with the West. While far from true, New Delhi did not help matters by allowing Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to visit India in March this year, despite the lack of progress in the latest round of bilateral military-to-military talks over Ladakh and the insult of seeing Beijing select one of the Chinese PLA officers involved in the Galwan clashes as a torchbearer at the Winter Olympics in February. Wang was ostensibly in India to invite Modi to the BRICS leaders’ summit China was scheduled to host in June. The Indian prime minister did attend the summit virtually, but made no reference to bilateral tensions or Chinese bad behavior.
There is no doubt that the global geopolitical landscape, as well as India’s domestic economic situation, have both become more difficult following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Indeed, India’s economic situation has been bad for quite some time as a result of both poor economic policymaking as well as the coronavirus pandemic. Instead of clarifying India’s strategic choices, however, there is muddled thinking in New Delhi on China. The Indian approach for the moment appears to be to occasionally provoke Beijing—using the Dalai Lama, for example—or to threaten it with rhetoric and high-level meetings of the Quad.
On the ground at the LAC, however, there does not seem to be any clear strategy, whether to restore the status quo prior to April 2020, to use the opportunity to settle the boundary dispute or to punish Chinese transgressions.
Jabin T. Jacob teaches at the Department of International Relations and Governance Studies, Shiv Nadar University, India, and is adjunct research fellow at the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. Some of his work can be found at Thinking about China in India.