How Beijing’s Aggression Pushed New Delhi to the West
In June 2020, the Chinese and Indian militaries clashed in the Galwan Valley, a rugged and remote area along the disputed border between the two countries. Twenty Indian and at least four Chinese soldiers were killed, and debate flared about the long-term implications of the skirmishes. Some analysts believed the Sino-Indian relationship would soon return to normal, with regular high-level meetings, increased Chinese investment in India, defense exchanges, and multilateral coordination. Record-high bilateral trade and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s trip to India in March 2022 seemed to support the notion that the two countries could set aside the border dispute and keep strengthening ties. So, too, did Chinese and Indian officials’ agreement in September to pull back from confrontational positions along one of the sections of the border in the Ladakh region where the militaries had been facing off since 2020.
That appearance of rapprochement obscures real ruptures. Indian policymakers were shocked by the outbreak of the border crisis in 2020, which they blamed on Chinese aggression and which remains an ongoing source of tension and concern. India’s domestic and foreign policies have shifted in significant ways in response to the perceived threat of China, and any restoration of the prior status quo in the bilateral relationship is unlikely. For the foreseeable future, India’s approach to China has moved from what can be described as competitive engagement to one of competitive coexistence—if not “armed coexistence,” as former Indian foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale put it. Two years ago, I had suggested in Foreign Affairs that China’s actions could result in Beijing “losing India.” Now, it’s safe to say that China has lost India.
CLASHING IN THE KARAKORAM
India has perceived China as a threat since at least the late 1950s when their differences over Tibet (the Himalayan state China annexed in 1951) and their undemarcated border came to the fore. These disputes precipitated a full-blown war in 1962 that ended disastrously for India, with the loss of territory. But following a crisis in 1986–87, the border remained relatively peaceful, a state of affairs facilitated by several agreements that New Delhi and Beijing negotiated over a 25-year period. This detente also enabled broader Sino-Indian engagement, particularly in the economic and multilateral arenas. It was only after Chinese President Xi Jinping took office that the boundary situation reared up again, with military standoffs in 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2017, and with China and India also competing more intensely elsewhere, jockeying for position in South Asian countries and within international organizations.
Even given this context, events in Ladakh in 2020 did not just constitute another border spat. The violence crossed several thresholds, including the first fatalities in 45 years, and the first known shots fired in decades. The standoffs occurred at more locations, at greater scale, and over a longer period of time than in previous crises. India has accused China of violating the border agreements, and consequently Indian policymakers worry about the prospect of Chinese forces taking further military action. This breakdown of trust has long-term implications for the unsettled border and the broader relationship between the two countries.
Beijing has called for the border crisis to be set aside and for diplomatic, defense, and economic cooperation to resume now that Chinese and Indian troops have disengaged at some of the points of friction. But New Delhi has called for further disengagement—the standing down of troops from more flash points—and for de-escalation—that is, a reversal of the military and infrastructure buildups that have taken place on both sides of the border over the last two and a half years. China is unlikely to agree to the latter, and India will not unilaterally de-escalate. Moreover, India does not believe the border issue can be set aside. It sees peace and tranquility at the border as a precondition for a normal Sino-Indian relationship. Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not meet with Xi on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in September, the first time such a meeting did not occur—a clear signal that India is not yet willing to return to business as usual with China.
The 2020 clash hardened official and public views of China in India, including among a new generation for whom the 1962 Sino-Indian war had been a distant memory. Coupled with China’s lack of transparency about the COVID-19 pandemic, the fighting on the border has left many Indians convinced that China poses an imminent and acute challenge to their country. These developments put an end to the idea that the two countries could alleviate political strains through border agreements and broader—especially economic—cooperation. They also reduced the reluctance in India, stemming from concern about provoking China, to strengthen certain kinds of military capabilities, infrastructure, and partnerships, particularly with the United States.
The appearance of rapprochement between China and India obscures real ruptures.
The perception of China as an adversarial and untrustworthy actor has, in turn, produced changes at the border that will likely outlast this crisis. Both sides have beefed up their military presence at the border, with many more forward-deployed troops—the Line of Actual Control between Indian-held and Chinese-held territories now looks more like the heavily militarized Line of Control between India and Pakistan. India has also redeployed some forces from facing Pakistan or engaging in counterinsurgency operations in northeastern India toward defending the border with China. It is building up both military and dual-purpose infrastructure across the entire border region to match Beijing’s equivalent buildup. These efforts will persist regardless of any bilateral agreement to resolve the current border crisis because India will remain concerned about further Chinese attempts to seize Indian land.
The heightened concern about China has also manifested in domestic policy. The Modi government has gone from initially seeking increased economic ties with China to imposing restrictions or extra scrutiny on a range of Chinese activities in India. It does not seek to decouple from China so much as it wants to disentangle India from China—an approach designed not to eliminate economic ties but to identify and reduce India’s vulnerabilities in critical sectors. Skeptics point to record-high bilateral trade as a measure of the failure of this approach, but India’s trade with China has grown nearly 15 percent more slowly than its trade with the rest of the world over the last year. Moreover, an accurate assessment of the approach will have to wait a few years. Indian officials have placed restrictions on Chinese investment, Chinese access to Indian public procurement contracts, and Chinese companies’ or organizations’ activities in critical economic, technology, telecommunications, civil society, and education sectors. Indian state governments and state-owned companies have suspended or withdrawn from some agreements with Chinese companies. India has banned several popular Chinese apps, including the social media platform TikTok, and excluded Chinese telecommunications companies from its 5G network. And Indian enforcement authorities are targeting Chinese companies for alleged tax or data transfer violations.
Tensions with Beijing have also driven New Delhi to try to reduce India’s economic dependence on China and take advantage of other countries’ desire to do so, as well. The Modi government has moved from criticizing trade agreements on the grounds that they adversely affected Indian businesses, farmers, and workers to exploring or signing deals with Australia, Canada, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the European Union. India is also seeking greater investment from alternate sources, not just in the West but also in the Indo-Pacific and Middle East—particularly in sectors such as solar power, pharmaceuticals, and electronics where it is trying to boost domestic production and reduce overreliance on imports from China.
On broader foreign policy choices, the border crisis has resulted in India further aligning with countries that can help strengthen its position in relation to China in the defense, economic security, and critical technology arenas. Such partners include Australia, France, Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
India has long sought to maintain its strategic autonomy, refusing to be drawn into alliances. Now, however, it is at least aligning with countries to address the threat China poses. India is willing now to cooperate more closely with the United States, even at the risk of angering China. It signed a geospatial intelligence agreement with the United States in October 2020; is conducting high-altitude exercises with the U.S. army near the Chinese-Indian border this month; has become more involved in the Indo-Pacific partnership known as the Quad (that features Australia, India, Japan, and the United States) despite Chinese and Russian objections; has participated in a range of maritime exercises with its Quad partners; signed a logistics-sharing agreement with Vietnam in June 2022; and in January 2022 reached a deal to sell BrahMos missiles (jointly developed by India and Russia) to the Philippines.
India once tiptoed around China’s sensitivities regarding perceived threats to its sovereignty. New Delhi is no longer being as deferential. Modi has publicly acknowledged calls he has made with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, a departure from his past reluctance to do so. And the Indian Air Force facilitated the Dalai Lama’s month-long visit to Ladakh in July 2022. In a departure from common practice, the Indian foreign ministry in September did not punt on a question about Xinjiang, the Muslim-majority province in the west of China. It twice noted that a UN human rights report had highlighted “the serious maltreatment of minorities” inside China. In recent weeks, the Indian government has also spoken critically about the “militarization of the Taiwan Strait,” refused to reiterate a “one China” policy (that would acknowledge Taiwan as a part of China and the People’s Republic of China as the only legal government of China) despite Beijing’s calls to do so, and urged restraint and warned against any unilateral change to the status quo after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei in August.
The border crisis has also encouraged India’s more receptive view of U.S. power and presence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region. In recent years, New Delhi has welcomed a U.S.-Maldivian defense agreement, permitted the refueling of an American reconnaissance aircraft in the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, backed the U.S.-Nepalese Millennium Challenge Corporation compact that seeks to facilitate infrastructure development, and helped block Chinese attempts to sink the security partnership among Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States known as AUKUS. Moreover, India is cooperating with the United States and other partners such as Japan to offer diplomatic, security, and economic alternatives and counter growing Chinese influence in neighboring South Asian countries.
At the same time as India has drawn closer to the United States and traditional U.S. allies, its ties with China and Russia-backed groupings are stalling. The border crisis has made apparent the limitations of associations such as BRICS (featuring Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), RIC (Russia, India, and China), and the SCO. As non-Western platforms, they were useful for India when it felt ignored by the West. But today, India sees China posing a greater constraint on its regional and global interests than any Western country. Moreover, Beijing and Moscow’s efforts to reshape these associations into anti-Western platforms limit their utility for India. That does not mean India will exit these groupings—it will not want to leave a vacuum for China to fill—but it has been more concertedly deepening its own relations with countries in the “global South,” outside of any groupings with China and Russia.
NOT SO FAST
Western policymakers, however, will have to reckon with the factors that could limit the speed and extent of Indian alignment with countries such as the United States against China. For one, India prioritizes Chinese threats differently than do its partners. Even as the latter focus on maritime challenges in the Indo-Pacific, India will devote considerable attention and resources to meeting the Chinese and Pakistani challenge at its border. This continental imperative will shape India’s approach to other Indo-Pacific issues. For instance, New Delhi remains cautious about making statements about Taiwan with other countries out of a concern that they could provoke China into putting more pressure on the border or on restive Indian regions such as Kashmir and in the northeast of the country. Indian officials also do not want China to see their border dispute through the lens of U.S.-Chinese competition; Beijing’s decision to go to war with India in 1962 was motivated by its sense that New Delhi and Washington were colluding to undermine Chinese interests in Tibet.
India’s dependence on Russia as a defense trade and technology partner will also slow any swift realignment. New Delhi’s initial cautious response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine was in no small part shaped by its concerns about potential Chinese escalation at the border. New Delhi has not wanted to jeopardize its military preparedness by upsetting Russia, a key defense supplier. Moreover, it does not want to push Russia from a position of relative neutrality to China’s side in the event of another Sino-Indian crisis. New Delhi also wants to give Moscow some alternatives to partnership with Beijing to delay or even disrupt the further deepening of Sino-Russian ties.
Another impediment to India’s realignment might be if its economic and technology regulations that target China deliberately or inadvertently reinforce protectionism. This could limit Indian economic and technological cooperation with Western and Indo-Pacific partners.
India may also be slow to take the right steps to address the threat posed by China in the security and economic domains due to domestic or other security priorities. It could try to buy time (or stability) with China that could curb the pace, albeit not the trajectory, of its cooperation with like-minded partners. Indian policymakers also harbor doubts about how willing and able many of its partners will continue to be to balance against China. Moreover, the Indian debate about China might have narrowed considerably, but the debate continues about how far and fast to deepen relations with the United States, in particular, and about the balance to strike between the desire for strategic autonomy and the need for alignment.
With its 2020 actions at the border, Beijing has stalled, if not reversed, years of deepening Sino-Indian ties. It has also, counterproductively, facilitated the strengthening of Indian partnerships with many Chinese rivals. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, the Indian foreign minister, recently alluded to the broad scope of competition between the two countries, sketching a very different vision of Asia than the one proposed by Beijing. On their part, India’s partners, including the United States, have wondered to what extent India can be brought onside in an alignment against China. These countries should approach India with both pragmatism and ambition. They should have realistic expectations about what New Delhi might be able to do in the Indo-Pacific, given its border-related, regional, and domestic priorities. And they should recognize that while India will compete with China, it will not compete in exactly the same way as the United States or Japan do. But they should not have too little ambition, assuming India will reject deeper cooperation—after all, New Delhi’s traditional diffidence has turned to more willing engagement in recent years. India will steer its own ship, but it is tacking in the direction of those interested in balancing Chinese power and influence in the region and around the world.