China Has Lost India: 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.


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.


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.


India, The QUAD And AUKUS

India’s external affairs minister S. Jaishankar earlier this week tweeted about his separate meetings with his Australian and French counterparts. That hadn’t been the plan—there was supposed to be a meeting of their trilateral on the U.N. General Assembly sidelines. However, that meeting was an early casualty of the rollout of AUKUS, the new Australia-U.K.-U.S. security partnership, which upset Paris. Although Delhi has not explicitly endorsed or criticized the arrangement, it is on balance likely to be seen positively by India.

Delhi’s relative silence about AUKUS does not signify a lack of interest. The development involves three of India’s closest partners in the Indo-Pacific (Australia, France, and the U.S.), and a fourth emerging partner in that region (the U.K.). India sees these countries as helpful in preserving a favorable balance of power and rules-based order in the region and globally. And India will see AUKUS and the subsequent family feud through the lens of their effect on these Indian objectives.

The Indian strategy to achieve these goals has involved building its capabilities and partnerships, encouraging the U.S. to remain engaged in the region, welcoming the efforts of like-minded Indo-Pacific and European partners, and building coalitions with these partners. AUKUS is likely to have a net positive effect on these efforts—though the transatlantic tension that its rollout has generated will also elicit some concern in Delhi. Thus, while India will have to navigate the awkward extended family dinner in the short term, it will not lose sight of the medium- and long-term benefits.

The Potential Benefits

The pros from India’s perspective include the signal AUKUS sends about its members’ perceptions, priorities, power and presence in the Indo-Pacific. Delhi has deep concerns about Chinese actions and intentions in the region. The ongoing border crisis and fatal military clash last year brought Sino-Indian relations to their worst point in decades. Given these circumstances, Delhi watches the U.S. and other countries’ stance on China very closely. And, notwithstanding the emphasis on competition with China from two consecutive U.S. administrations and the hardening of the U.S.’s attitudes on China, Delhi worries about the possibility of American commitment to the region waning or a reversion to a more accommodating position on China. There has been even more concern about Canberra reverting to its more sanguine approach to China.

In this context, AUKUS is beneficial for India because it reflects continued and intensifying U.S. and Australian concerns about China. Moreover, it is designed to increase their capabilities in the region (which will also, consequently, increase the cumulative capabilities of the Quad). And this, in turn, will bolster both the Australian and the American ability to deter China or to respond in the event of a crisis. In this way, it supplements the Quad’s efforts. One question for the future is whether India will perceive and seize opportunities for new kinds of defense and security engagement with AUKUS members that the arrangement may offer.

This is related to another advantage that India might see with AUKUS. In recent years, Indian policymakers and analysts have, on balance, gone from worrying about too much U.S. presence and interest in the Indian Ocean to worrying about Washington paying too little attention to this region. AUKUS could ease this concern, as will the enhanced American rotational deployments and other activities envisaged by the recent AUSMIN discussions. Given increased Chinese forays into the region, the Indian government will likely see this as a positive outcome that matters more than lingering concerns among some officials or analysts about an increased U.S. presence.

There is an additional benefit from India’s perspective in that AUKUS conveys the U.K.’s seriousness about its tilt to the Indo-Pacific. Moreover, this involvement will be in ways that broadly complement India’s interests and efforts. It also signals that the British view of the China challenge has evolved. Given that London has had a more accommodating view of China—as have other European partners—than India would prefer, AUKUS could also be a platform that helps socialize the U.K. even further to the acuteness of the China challenge. Here, too, AUKUS could pull in the same direction as the Quad, which reportedly will conduct a maritime exercise with the British navy next month.

Another potential benefit could be the leverage the AUKUS rollout gives India in both the diplomatic and defense trade realms, particularly with France. Paris will probably double down on its efforts to secure arms deals with India—for commercial and political economic reasons and maybe even to get one over on the U.S. This goes beyond platforms like fighter aircraft. Specifically, India has an indigenous program to develop nuclear-powered submarines and is leasing a nuclear-powered submarine from Russia, with reports that it is considering leasing a second. Some Indian commentators have raised the question of whether France’s reaction to AUKUS could make Paris (or even the U.S.) more willing and able to help Delhi in this realm in addition to or in place of Russia. While France’s interest might raise concerns among arms control experts, this might not be unwelcome to those in the U.S. interested in reducing India’s dependence on Russia.

The Complications

France’s unhappiness with AUKUS has complicated the situation a bit from India’s perspective. On the one hand, Delhi recognizes that different coalitions will form based, in part, on different tiers of threat perceptions of China. Its own multitude of trilaterals (as well as participation in the Quad) reflects this understanding. Moreover, Delhi, too, has found European partners to be less concerned about China than it would like—and that has set limits to the depth of its own cooperation with them in certain sensitive realms.

On the other hand, Delhi will be chagrined by the family feud sparked by the lack of AUKUS consultation with France, which seems only to help Beijing. Paris’s discontent feeds China’s narrative about U.S. unreliability and supports China’s efforts to drive wedges between European and Indo-Pacific partners and forestall their collaborative efforts. Delhi will be less concerned about arguments that AUKUS angst will affect Paris’ commitment to the Indo-Pacific—it believes this is motivated by resident power France’s own interests in the region. Indian policymakers will be more concerned about any adverse impact on U.S.-Europe cooperation on issues like technology or developing resilient supply chains.

And Delhi might worry about what persisting strains might mean for its efforts to work collaboratively with like-minded partners in domains such as maritime security. The Quad members, for instance, had participated in a French-led naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal earlier this year. And the Australia-France-India trilateral focuses on this issue. Delhi might also be concerned about any fallout related to U.S.-French collaboration in multilateral institutions. Recently, this has often benefited Indian interests, and, at the U.N. Security Council, even directly helped India when China has backed Pakistan. Delhi wants these partners to be proactively involved in helping shape international rules, norms and standards, as well as the leadership of these organizations—and not have them hold back or have to pull them along.

Lingering Questions

There have been some questions raised by Indian commentators about AUKUS and its rollout. One is what the U.S. treatment of Afghanistan and France says about American reliability. Others have countered that AUKUS might signify greater U.S. investment and commitment in the Indo-Pacific, at least, and demonstrate that Washington is willing to make hard choices toward that goal.

Some have also questioned why India hasn’t received a similar offer. Others, however, rightly have pointed out that India is not an ally—by choice—and cannot expect that it will always have access to the same technology. An ally like Australia is also much more likely to join U.S. efforts in certain contingencies such as a Taiwan Strait crisis. It’s also worth pointing out that the U.S. has taken similarly unprecedented steps for non-ally India—the U.S.-India civil nuclear deal, most significantly—and given Delhi access to military equipment that only Washington’s closest allies operate.

Others have wondered whether AUKUS signals a dilution of interest in India or the Quad, particularly within the White House. However, the Biden administration has spent more time engaging India than any previous U.S. administration in its first eight months in office, including taking time to explain its perspective on AUKUS to Indian policymakers (Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin recently spoke with his Indian counterpart). Furthermore, the other actors involved also thought it important to brief India on their perspective. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and the Australian High Commissioner to India hosted a press conference on AUKUS. Modi and French President Emmanuel Macron talked as well, with the latter promising that France was “strongly committed” to the Indo-Pacific.

The Biden administration and Morrison government have also not diluted or done away with the Quad these past few months but rather doubled down on it. There’s been an elevation to the leaders’ level, two summits, ministerial and senior officials’ meetings, concrete initiatives, cooperation on a broader range of issues, and even some institutionalization in the form of working groups, sherpas, and established processes.

One additional concern expressed has been that AUKUS “might weaken strategic cooperation under the Quad … and reduce the quadrilateral grouping to dealing with just climate change, COVID vaccines and the like.” This is a departure from the usual criticism in India that Delhi has been cooperating too much with the U.S. in this regard. Indeed, India has itself been reluctant to securitize the Quad, particularly in a visible fashion. And the Quad has collectively decided to focus on areas that help build resilience in the region and demonstrate that the grouping can deliver practical solutions to regional problems. That does not preclude—nor has it precluded—the security dimensions of the four countries’ cooperation, as the ongoing MALABAR exercise and technology cooperation makes clear. It certainly has not precluded a further deepening of bilateral U.S.-India defense and security ties.

Indeed, as mentioned above, AUKUS could actually help the Quad. It could even take some of the pressure off the grouping, by attracting Chinese ire. It might make the four-country grouping relatively more palatable to ASEAN in comparison. And, as another non-Quad venue for security collaboration, AUKUS could also reduce the pressure on India and Japan to undertake commitments or activities on the defense and security front that they are unable or unwilling to sign on to. This potentially increases the freedom of action—or strategic autonomy—of these members and other like-minded countries in the region.

Some of these aspects might become clearer over the course of the current Quad summit or at least in Modi’s bilaterals with his Quad counterparts. He will seek to better understand AUKUS and its implications for the region. India will also be hoping that the Macron-Biden call was a sign of things to come and AUKUS hasn’t done lasting damage to collaborative efforts in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. At the end of the day, India wants to see its various partners and like-minded coalitions pulling in the same direction. Thus, it will do what it can to soothe ruffled feathers. Finally, Indian officials will assess what opportunities have opened up for India particularly with France, which it considers relatively more reliable as a defense trade partner, and with the U.S. and Australia, which are in better alignment regarding China.