For nearly five months now, around 100,000 Indian and Chinese soldiers have been engaged in a precarious standoff high in the Himalayas. Negotiations between military commanders and diplomats have so far prevented border clashes from escalating into a wider military conflict between the world’s two most populous countries. But after fighting in June led to the first combat fatalities on the frontier in 45 years, both sides rushed additional troops to the frontier and tensions are still running high. China has rapidly consolidated territorial gains along the border to take the upper hand in negotiations, leaving Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government with some tough choices to make in the middle of a raging pandemic and as the Indian economy craters.

The border crisis has snowballed into an intractable political, diplomatic, and economic challenge for Modi. He can’t accept Beijing’s aggression in the region without denting his own nationalist strongman credentials, but he can’t stand up to China militarily without making enormous investments in his military—investments that are impossible in the midst of an economic crisis. Modi could enlist external friends and allies, both in the region and globally, to put pressure on China, but that risks deviating from India’s long-standing commitment to “strategic autonomy”—that is, a foreign policy of self-reliance that doesn’t forge close alliances with great powers. And courting allies may be a little harder for India after Modi’s domestic policies, which have often channeled the Hindu nationalist politics of his political base, have reduced India’s attractiveness as a liberal, secular democracy. Modi, the most powerful ruler India has had in decades, now faces a moment of reckoning.

A ONE-SIDED CONTEST

Beijing and New Delhi have had a tumultuous relationship for the past seven decades. The lowest point was a border war in 1962 in which China humiliated India, seizing vast tracts of land in the disputed territory of Ladakh. Relations between the two Asian powers slowly improved after the end of the Cold War. Both countries sought deeper economic ties, greater diplomatic engagement, and occasional cooperation at multilateral forums. They managed tensions along their disputed border through a series of agreements that laid out protocols and tried to suppress the likelihood of a military escalation. This model worked for a quarter of a century but was fraying at the edges by 2017, when Indian and Chinese soldiers confronted each other for 73 days at Doklam on the Bhutan border.

The Doklam crisis was a warning sign that officials in New Delhi ignored. Instead of recognizing that China was acting more aggressively, India reverted to the calculated balancing act that had facilitated India’s rise as an emerging power in the new millennium. Modi tried to build stronger personal ties with China over two informal summits with Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2018 and 2019, the two most well-publicized meetings among the 18 they have had so far. This effort was in keeping with India’s commitment to strategic autonomy—a legacy of the foreign policy of nonalignment championed by India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Even though Modi has flirted with the idea of joining Australia, Japan, and the United States in the so-called Quad, he has never fully committed to entering any anti-China grouping. Much to the West’s chagrin, New Delhi has been reluctant to identify Beijing as an adversary. Indian officials seem to have believed in the platitude that the two Asian giants would not let their differences become disputes.      

Beijing clearly had other ideas. Tensions rose after Modi’s government changed the constitutional status of Kashmir in August 2019, bringing disputed areas bordering China directly under New Delhi’s control. China objected strongly to the move in public statements, with Modi rushing his foreign minister to Beijing to ease tensions. Things seemed to have settled until May, when the People’s Liberation Army diverted soldiers from an annual training exercise in Tibet toward and across multiple points of the disputed Sino-Indian border in Ladakh. This caught India by surprise and it sent additional troops to Ladakh in the following weeks, but by then the PLA had reportedly grabbed over 1,000 square kilometers of territory in the border areas. Beijing has refused to withdraw from these new positions despite numerous rounds of talks over the past 21 weeks.

Like Modi in India, Xi is the most powerful Chinese leader in decades. He has finally abandoned Deng Xiaoping’s much-cited dictum “Hide your strength, bide your time.” Beijing has good reasons to be more assertive now, having grown economically and militarily and emerged as an undisputed global power. It now wishes to demonstrate that strength. Beijing and New Delhi were in the same league three decades ago, but China has since moved far ahead, pitching itself directly against the United States. It riles New Delhi that China doesn’t seem to take India all that seriously. As Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar noted in his recent book, The Indian Way, “Unlike on the rest of world, India’s rise has been partly lost on a China that has been growing five times faster.”

The Chinese army has grabbed over 1,000 square kilometers of territory in the border areas.

The difference between the two Asian neighbors is real and substantive. The Chinese economy is five times the size of the Indian economy, while its military spending is four times that of India’s. Moreover, India’s economic growth rate, which had already started to slow under Modi’s government, has posted the worst performance among big economies during the COVID-19 pandemic. Unemployment is at an all-time high, industrial production has declined, and investment has dried up. Once touted as possibly the fastest-growing economy in the world, India under Modi is staring at its worst economic crisis in many decades. New Delhi is in no position to build the military strength it desperately needs not only to fend off China but to handle a potential war on two fronts against both China and longtime rival Pakistan.  

India has to find a way to deal with a demonstratively assertive China despite this growing asymmetry of economic and military power. There are not many arrows in Modi’s quiver, a weakness reflected in his government’s stance during the ongoing border crisis. Modi is quick to inveigh against Pakistan, but he has been very careful in his choice of words about China, rarely discussing in public Beijing’s aggressive moves on the border. Modi likes to pose as a Hindu nationalist strongman and a bold leader, but he realizes that India is in no position to risk a military conflict with China. In a joint press statement issued on September 22 after the recent meeting of senior military commanders, the two sides agreed to “stop sending more troops to the frontline” and “avoid taking any actions that may complicate the situation.” But by agreeing to “refrain from unilaterally changing the situation on the ground,” Modi’s government conceded that it was not willing to force the Chinese to withdraw from recently grabbed territory or to stop the PLA from building new watchtowers and other outposts along the border. India intends to avoid a military escalation, which in all likelihood means that it will accept the new Chinese-established status quo on the border.     

India’s most public retaliatory move against Beijing has been to ban a few dozen Chinese apps, including the popular video-sharing app TikTok. Such a response is not enough to satisfy the millions of Indians who believe Modi is an all-conquering, all-powerful leader—an image peddled by the jingoistic Indian media. But Modi will not want to up the ante and try to retake lost land, risking a war he has little chance of winning. India has no immediate answers to China’s aggression, although the long-term prescriptions are well-known. Jaishankar speaks of “simultaneously strengthening capacities internally, assessing the external landscape, and seeking understandings with China,” but at least two of those general recommendations will deliver little in the near term: India is not in a position to meaningfully ramp up investment in its military during the current economic crisis, and Modi cannot seek an understanding with China without making politically unviable concessions such as formally giving up territory and enduring public humiliation. Even though large sections of Indian media march to Modi’s tune, their panegyrical coverage of the military in the last two decades—granting the troops an exalted status and hailing every soldier’s death as a sacrifice for the nation—could complicate matters for the government. Modi’s attempt to project normalcy on the border was upended in the middle of June after the media fixated on how 20 Indian soldiers had lost their lives and ten were taken captive in clashes with Chinese soldiers in Ladakh.

BETWEEN AUTONOMY AND ALLIANCE

The “external landscape,” however, seems favorably disposed toward India as many major countries look to New Delhi to help hedge against an assertive China. India has been hesitant to take advantage of these overtures, hoping to both compete and cooperate with China and retain strategic autonomy. But things are changing fast. In September, India and Japan sealed a logistics agreement to provide their militaries with access to each other’s bases for supplies and services. The Indian and Japanese foreign ministers, along with their American and Australian counterparts, are expected to meet in Tokyo in early October as part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Beijing is unhappy about the Quad possibly emerging as an Asian version of NATO. Modi will have to decide whether he wants to enter India into a possibly militarized Quad grouping—in the vein of NATO—or if he only has the stomach for a more benign multilateral formation that emphasizes cooperation, but not military partnership, against China.

India has refrained from becoming a formal U.S. ally even though it wants greater support from Washington, especially in light of its border crisis with China. New Delhi has historically benefited from bipartisan support in the United States, but that has been damaged in recent years as Modi publicly chose to support U.S. President Donald Trump—the two leaders have shared the stage at rapturous rallies in Houston and in Ahmedabad—and as Modi’s Hindu nationalist government has steered India away from its secular, liberal, and democratic traditions. The contours of a comprehensive Indian-U.S. partnership, and New Delhi’s commitment to it, will be clear only after the results of the U.S. presidential election in November; should the Democrats win, Modi will have to adapt to a different kind of U.S. foreign policy and potentially to more scrutiny of his government’s majoritarian domestic agenda.

It will be tough for Modi to safeguard India’s interests—including its strategic autonomy and its burgeoning trade ties with China—while acting as a bulwark against an aggressive China. He has been very guarded so far, but he will have to guide India in one direction or another, either toward greater contestation with China or toward a more submissive modus vivendi. The current crisis on the roof of the world has put Modi, who has made a political career out of projecting strength, in an unenviable position. It has forced him to confront the consequences of his own strongman rhetoric and exposed the weak position in which his six years of rule have left India.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now