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India’s China Policy Is Confused

Two years after a deadly border clash, New Delhi appears wary of Beijing but unwilling to partner with Washington. These contradictions leave it open to exploitation.

By , a senior fellow with the Centre for Policy Research in India.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attend a group photo session during the BRICS Summit in Xiamen, China, on Sept. 4, 2017. KENZABURO FUKUHARA/AFP via Getty Images

At last month’s Quadrilateral Security Dialogue summit, the leaders of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States unveiled a maritime information-sharing project in the Indo-Pacific region. The initiative is designed to respond to natural disasters and combat illegal fishing; it comes in part as a response to Chinese activity in the region. Days later, news broke that India had also agreed to work with China on space cooperation. Under the new plan, two Indian satellites will be part of a “virtual constellation” that allows data-sharing among the BRICS countries, which also include Brazil, Russia, and South Africa.

These two contradictory moves capture the dilemma India currently faces: It seeks to benefit from initiatives that contain China, but it is fearful of antagonizing the superpower and thus willing to work with it in certain areas. Just a month after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared at the Quad leaders’ summit in Tokyo, he will join a virtual BRICS leaders’ summit chaired by Beijing. Modi’s reticence to stand up to China, whether couched in India’s quest for multipolarity or in its desire to safeguard its sovereignty, is surprising. After all, China is India’s primary strategic challenger, with which it shares a 2,000-mile disputed border, and Beijing ultimately wants New Delhi to accept its hegemony.

Despite these threats, India’s policy toward China is currently characterized by caution, confusion, and contradiction. Two years after a deadly border clash between Indian and Chinese soldiers, New Delhi is grappling with an unresolved crisis that it can’t address in public. On the other hand, Modi’s government is discussing further partnerships with China on space and security, and trade ties between the two countries remain deep. India’s muddled position puts it at a disadvantage and confuses its partnerships with the United States and the Quad, both of which are hardening against China. How Beijing chooses to exploit these issues remains an open question.

At last month’s Quadrilateral Security Dialogue summit, the leaders of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States unveiled a maritime information-sharing project in the Indo-Pacific region. The initiative is designed to respond to natural disasters and combat illegal fishing; it comes in part as a response to Chinese activity in the region. Days later, news broke that India had also agreed to work with China on space cooperation. Under the new plan, two Indian satellites will be part of a “virtual constellation” that allows data-sharing among the BRICS countries, which also include Brazil, Russia, and South Africa.

These two contradictory moves capture the dilemma India currently faces: It seeks to benefit from initiatives that contain China, but it is fearful of antagonizing the superpower and thus willing to work with it in certain areas. Just a month after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared at the Quad leaders’ summit in Tokyo, he will join a virtual BRICS leaders’ summit chaired by Beijing. Modi’s reticence to stand up to China, whether couched in India’s quest for multipolarity or in its desire to safeguard its sovereignty, is surprising. After all, China is India’s primary strategic challenger, with which it shares a 2,000-mile disputed border, and Beijing ultimately wants New Delhi to accept its hegemony.

Despite these threats, India’s policy toward China is currently characterized by caution, confusion, and contradiction. Two years after a deadly border clash between Indian and Chinese soldiers, New Delhi is grappling with an unresolved crisis that it can’t address in public. On the other hand, Modi’s government is discussing further partnerships with China on space and security, and trade ties between the two countries remain deep. India’s muddled position puts it at a disadvantage and confuses its partnerships with the United States and the Quad, both of which are hardening against China. How Beijing chooses to exploit these issues remains an open question.


June 15 marks two years since 20 Indian soldiers and at least four Chinese soldiers died in fighting along the disputed border between the two countries in the cold desert of Ladakh in the northern Himalayas. It was the countries’ deadliest clash since 1967. The crisis along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) has not abated, with more than 100,000 additional soldiers from both armies now positioned against each other in the mountains. Chinese soldiers have denied Indian military patrols access to some border areas, even as senior diplomatic and military officials conduct separate talks to resolve the crisis. But India is both unable to compel China to restore the border situation to the early 2020 status quo and unwilling to undertake any bold step against its rival.

Last month, Indian and Chinese diplomats agreed to hold a 16th round of talks between their senior military commanders in Ladakh. The difference in their rhetoric stands out; the two sides can barely agree on the purpose of the discussions. New Delhi said the meeting aims to achieve “complete disengagement from all friction points in eastern Ladakh” in accordance with existing agreements. But Beijing said the next meeting will be held to resolve remaining issues along the LAC “under the principle of mutual and equal security.” India has pushed for the talks but cannot get China to agree on how they will be resolved, reflecting a vast asymmetry of power.

From the beginning, Modi and his government have been silent about the flagrant violation of India’s territorial integrity by China. Four days after the clash in Ladakh, Modi stated that no Chinese soldier had entered Indian territory, and he hasn’t since raised the issue publicly or allowed debate about it in Parliament. By keeping the issue out of the news, Modi seeks to protect his muscular nationalist image. Indian statements invoke euphemisms—such as “friction points” for areas of Chinese military incursions; New Delhi claims the numerous rounds of talks have worked toward “restoration of peace,” not reversing Chinese gains.

Meanwhile, India insists that its bilateral ties with China won’t return to normal until the two countries resolve their issues on the border; Beijing says the crisis should not hold their relationship hostage. New Delhi’s position is disputed by the reality: flourishing bilateral trade, multilateral funding, BRICS cooperation, and regular diplomatic engagements. Indian military contingents have participated in multilateral exercises with the People’s Liberation Army under the aegis of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and top Indian officials have held formal meetings with their Chinese counterparts.

Two years ago, India took some retaliatory actions against China, such as banning certain Chinese mobile apps and changing the rules for Chinese investments. But these seemed largely directed at a domestic audience. China was India’s primary trading partner in 2021, and that didn’t change in the first three months of 2022, according to Chinese data. Around one-quarter of approved loans by the China-headquartered Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank have gone to India. Furthermore, New Delhi has now asked Beijing to allow 23,000 Indian students to return to China for higher education. Last month, Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar attended a BRICS foreign ministers’ meeting, where Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered an address on security cooperation.

Likewise, India’s political leadership may be keen to declare an early end to the border crisis with China. Downplaying the clash, Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval recently wrote, “The question to be asked is: Was the aggressor able to impose its will upon us? If the answer is an unambiguous ‘no,’ then the actions are questionable.” It seems the government no longer touts restoring the early 2020 status quo as a goal. It may be satisfied with a limited disengagement that increases the distance between the Indian and Chinese soldiers’ positions. But the Chinese refusal to discuss the areas of Depsang and Demchok, where they have blocked Indian patrols, could prevent even this limited goal.

China has trapped India on the disputed border. It has no military options to reverse the Chinese ingress without risking escalation—something it is also unprepared for. The Chinese forces have the advantage of flatter terrain and better connectivity; in two years, they have built up a massive amount of infrastructure. Top Indian military commanders have advocated so-called strategic patience, saying that if the border negotiation is prolonged, “we are going to wait.” And it could be a long wait: Xi isn’t expected to make a major move before the 20th Party Congress later this year, where he seeks an unprecedented—and almost certain—third term as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party.

Indian military planners are already worried about next summer, when a reelected Xi may face pressure to deliver on reunification with Taiwan. The border with India could provide an alternative place for China to showcase a military victory. As the economic and security gap with Beijing widens, New Delhi will struggle to meet this challenge.


India now finds itself in a quandary. It does not wish to accept the widening power differential with China, especially given its aggression on the border. But as U.S. antipathy toward Beijing becomes more pronounced, New Delhi is working hard to prevent its own contest from turning into conflict—something it is not militarily or economically prepared for. The Biden administration rightly assumes that India should stand by the United States as a partner to contain China in the Indo-Pacific region, but it finds the Modi government’s hesitations hard to decipher.

Since U.S. President Joe Biden took charge, his administration has taken strident positions on China. It leaves no opportunity unturned to put public pressure on Beijing; that belligerence is visible in U.S. statements on Taiwan, including from Biden himself. Meanwhile, India is reluctant to condemn China, whether for its repression in Hong Kong or for obscuring the origins of COVID-19. This attitude has raised questions among some U.S. officials about India’s commitment to U.S. strategic goals and willingness to stand up to China, especially while partnering with the United States.

The border crisis came up at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore this month, when U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin pointed out that “Beijing continue[s] to harden its position” along the LAC. Kenneth Juster, the U.S. ambassador to India under former President Donald Trump, has said the “restraint in mentioning China in any U.S.-India communication or any Quad communication comes from India, which is very concerned about not poking China in the eye.” Some U.S. officials worry that a big gesture from Beijing could lead to renewed bonhomie between India and China, as in 2017, when an 73-day military standoff at Doklam led to an informal summit in Wuhan, China, between Modi and Xi.

Many observers pin their hopes on the Quad and the idea that external rebalancing can help India stand up to China. But New Delhi does not want to be part of a binding security arrangement, and the Quad has so far steadfastly refused to enter the military domain. In other areas, India finds itself at odds with the other Quad members: On Russia’s war in Ukraine, digital rights, and its wheat export ban, India sticks out like a sore thumb by trying to chart its own path. Differences on data privacy have also cropped up in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity, recently proposed by Biden in Tokyo.

The Biden administration describes a geopolitical fault line between democracies and despots, but Modi’s government is uncomfortable with putting its own democratic record up for scrutiny. He has worked to make India a de facto Hindu state, overseen intimidation against religious minorities, and eroded safeguards for freedom of speech. India’s foreign ministry recently hit back at remarks by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken over “rising attacks” against religious minorities in India. It echoed statements by Beijing’s so-called “wolf warrior” diplomats, adding that New Delhi has “highlighted issues of concern [in the United States], including racially and ethnically motivated attacks, hate crimes and gun violence.” To make matters worse, the United States hasn’t put a new ambassador in place in New Delhi, which could alleviate tensions.

As the relatively weaker India is trapped on the border with China, it is compelled to engage more intensely with the Quad. But the group is likely to drift toward a de facto anti-Beijing alliance, which could pin an uncomfortable New Delhi into a position it has so far avoided. India is the only Quad country that is a non-treaty partner of the United States and the only one that shares a land border with China; it doesn’t want the group to be seen as a geopolitical alliance to counter China. Modi desires maneuverability for India, calculating that it can’t afford to antagonize a superpower but needs to work with other global powers to secure its interests. New Delhi does not want to be caught in the middle of a new cold war.

Without a change in course, the whispers in Washington about New Delhi’s commitment to stand up to Beijing will only grow louder. Perhaps to avoid that scenario, India seems desperate to declare the Ladakh border crisis as over. China is cognizant of India’s weakness and has not provided any such opening, refusing to make any concessions on the border. It has made some moves intended to exploit India’s muddled position, such as supporting Jaishankar’s recent tirade against Europe or blaming the United States for sowing discord between Beijing and New Delhi.

As long as it fears military escalation with China and avoids partnering with the United States, an economically weak and socially fragile India under Modi runs the risk of getting caught between a hammer and an anvil.

Sushant Singh is a senior fellow with the Centre for Policy Research in India. He was previously a lecturer in political science at Yale University and the deputy editor of the Indian Express, reporting on strategic affairs, national security, and international affairs. He won a Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award for his reporting in 2017 and 2018. Twitter: @SushantSin

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