Two Years After Border Clashes, India Still Lacks a Coherent China Policy

Two Years After Border Clashes, India Still Lacks a Coherent China Policy
An Indian schoolgirl wears a face mask of Chinese President Xi Jinping to welcome him on the eve of his visit in Chennai, India, Oct. 10, 2019 (AP photo by R. Parthibhan).

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.

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