The disputed Sino-Indian border, which stretches some 3,500km (2,175 miles) along some of the world’s most rugged terrain, is roiling after soldiers from the two countries clashed violently in the last fortnight. The two militaries remain poised eyeball-to-eyeball in Ladakh – a high-altitude desert of which China claims and controls a 43,000-square-kilometre (16,602-square-mile) chunk.
Decades of negotiations between New Delhi and Beijing have not yielded a solution to their competing claims over 135,000 square kilometres of territory along the border.
Even so, violence of the kind witnessed on June 15, when 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers died in a brutal clash in the remote Galwan River Valley, is rare.
According to Indian accounts, the impasse began in early May when soldiers from China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), who were engaged in their springtime exercises in Tibet, unexpectedly crossed the de facto border – known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC) – and grabbed chunks of unoccupied territory. India’s thinly deployed military could only watch, since its springtime manoeuvres had been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Chinese occupation of Indian-claimed territory and the killing of Indian soldiers are a heavy challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s image, which rests on muscular Hindu nationalism. It exposes Mr Modi to allegations of political misjudgement since he has, over the years, invested personal and political capital into wooing China and befriending its President Xi Jinping. The two have met numerous times, including in two “informal summits” at Wuhan in 2018 and in Chennai, in India, last year. Modi portrayed each of these meetings as heralding a new era of strategic cooperation with China.
His government has been unusually mindful of China’s sensitivities, even as it repeatedly opposed India’s bids for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which controls the world’s export of nuclear materials. Beijing stalled New Delhi’s attempts in the United Nations to have a Pakistan-based radical preacher, Maulana Masood Azhar, designated a global terrorist for 10 years before agreeing to the designation last year. It also ignored India’s objections to building a China-Pakistan Economic Corridor through territory claimed by India.
Overlooking all this, New Delhi has avoided criticising Beijing over its heavy-handedness against Taiwan and Hong Kong, brutal crackdowns in Tibet and Xinjiang, its role in the COVID-19 pandemic, or even the Belt and Road Initiative that tramples on India’s territorial claims.
Most significantly, Modi has remained non-committal to blandishments from Washington for India to play a major role alongside the US in deterring Chinese adventurism in the Indo-Pacific region. New Delhi has consistently rebuffed invitations to carry out joint patrols with the US military, and chosen to project military power only in the Indian Ocean, rather than in the contested South China Sea.
Given the government’s care not to offend Beijing, India’s opposition parties have seized the opportunity to lampoon Modi, who had famously claimed in a 2014 election rally that his “56-inch chest” made him suitable for governing. Now his political rivals are criticising him that his musculature exists only in dealing with Pakistan, but not with China.
Modi is also facing trenchant criticism over inadequately funding the military throughout his six years in power. In the current year, the defence budget has fallen to its lowest level, as a share of GDP, since 1962. That year, debilitated by a decade of dwindling budgets, India’s military was traumatically drubbed in a war with China.
Amid a chorus of rising criticism, Modi is downplaying the Chinese intrusions, while publicly announcing that the military was handling matters. There is no word on what demands Beijing has made, if any, in on-going discussions between diplomats of both countries.
If Beijing refuses to vacate the territory it has occupied, or makes impossible demands of India, Modi will be left with few options. In what would be a tectonic shift in global power dynamics, India would probably align openly with the US, enormously boosting the emerging containment of China. While Beijing might regard New Delhi’s burgeoning relations with Washington as provocative, and this may have motivated it to teach India a lesson, the outcome would be a strategic debacle for China: Its largest neighbour, India, being pushed into the arms of its superpower adversary, America.
Already, Washington has signalled its readiness to stand alongside India. On at least three occasions since the beginning of May, senior US political officials have pledged support to New Delhi, following up those offers through diplomatic channels. So far, Modi has demurred, replying that India is capable of handling the situation, but this could change.
Also, on the cards is the probability of India galvanising the Quad – a four-nation diplomatic grouping with military overtones that also features Australia, Japan and the US. Since 2007, India has been mindful of Beijing’s sensitivities about what was billed as an anti-China “concert of democracies”. Now, by allowing Australia into the Malabar trilateral naval exercises, which also include the US and Japan, India could militarise the Quad, making it a significant anti-China grouping in the South China Sea.
India could also pursue economic retribution against China. In an emphatic signal, in April, New Delhi imposed restrictions on Chinese financial investments into India, blocking cash-rich Chinese companies from cheaply buying stakes in Indian firms financially distressed by the pandemic-related economic slowdown. New Delhi could also bar Chinese telecommunications firms from participating in the rollout of India’s 5G telecom network.
With Sino-Indian trade heavily weighted in China’s favour – the trade imbalance was about $56bn last year – New Delhi could impose damaging restrictions on imports from China. However, the trade interdependence between the two countries would impose a cost on Indian firms as well. For example, India’s well-developed pharmaceutical industry relies heavily on bulk drugs sourced from China.
Perhaps the greatest damage to Chinese interests has already taken place – in its image among Indians. While India’s 1962 generation, and perhaps the next, held onto a demonised image of China, India’s millennials had tended to perceive China more favourably, as a modern economic powerhouse. Now, the Ladakh intrusions and the media glare around “Chinese backstabbing” has created another Indian generation that regards China with animosity.
Most immediately, New Delhi must deal with the situation of having Chinese troops in occupation of Indian territory. Given the nationalistic mood in India, which Modi himself has been central to creating, a soft response or the surrender of territory would be politically unacceptable. The government’s strategy to obtain time to negotiate with Beijing by downplaying the situation has been scuttled by an active media and an opposition that is keen to corner the government on the issue of national security.
Nor have the Chinese shown any inclination to de-escalate. If anything, Beijing is upping the ante, with reports coming in of fresh Chinese intrusions at other spots along the border. With armed Indian and Chinese troops eyeball-to-eyeball and reserve formations mobilising to the border, the situation could quickly spin out of control. The various Sino-Indian confidence-building agreements that have kept the peace for the past few decades appear to have lost their validity.
Simultaneously, there are reports of cross-border firing on the Line of Control with Pakistan, raising apprehensions of India’s two main enemies – who tout themselves as “iron brothers” – joining hands to force a two-front war on India. With New Delhi unlikely to prevail in that unequal contest, it would have little choice but to call on Washington for assistance, or to fall back on its nuclear deterrent.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.