For years, the United States and its allies have tried to persuade India to become a closer military and economic partner in confronting China’s ambitions, painting it as a chance for the world’s largest democracy to counterbalance the largest autocracy.
This week, the idea of such a confrontation became more real as Indian and Chinese soldiers clashed in the worst violence on the countries’ border in 45 years, leaving 20 Indian troops dead and causing an unknown number of Chinese casualties.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has publicly reveled in the prospect of a more muscular role for India in the region and the world. But analysts say the new tensions with China will be the starkest test yet of whether India is ready — or truly willing — to jostle with a rising power bent on expanding its interests and territory.
With China facing new scrutiny and criticism over the coronavirus pandemic, Indian officials have recently seemed emboldened, taking steps that made Western diplomats feel that their goal of an India closer to the West was starting to be realized. And some believe the friction with China will push India even further in that direction.
This month, India signed a major defense agreement with Australia that allows both countries to use each other’s military bases. And it is expected to invite Australia to join naval exercises it conducts with Japan and the United States, to strengthen efforts by the so-called Quad — Australia, Japan, the United States and India — to counter China’s projection of sea power in the region.
India’s campaign for a larger profile in multinational organizations has also moved quickly. On Wednesday, it was elected unopposed to a nonpermanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. And in May, it won the chair of the World Health Organization’s executive board, where it promptly supported calls to investigate the origins of the coronavirus — an inquiry China had fought to block.
But India is still well behind China when it comes to military and economic power. That may give India’s leaders pause over the prospect of an armed escalation on their disputed Himalayan border, where the bloody clashes broke out this week.
“India will have to deploy all three — military, economic and political options,” said the president of the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation, Samir Saran, who is close to India’s foreign minister. “China is a large and powerful country, and a sustained response to their aggression will have to include all of these.”
“The defense of liberalism and democracy and an international open system will play out between India and China,” he said.
While India’s military is one of the world’s largest, it has failed to modernize and stay competitive. This year, India announced a military budget of nearly $74 billion, compared with Beijing’s $178 billion. In India’s case, much of that spending is going to pay pensions.
Economically, India has become more willing to use its vast market as a lever to pressure China. In April, it passed legislation requiring government approval for any investments from Chinese entities, a setback for China as its companies look abroad for growth. And Reuters reported on Thursday that India planned to raise tariffs on Chinese goods.
Diplomats expect India to prevent the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from entering its market to build a 5G wireless network. The United States accuses Huawei of aiding the Chinese government in cyberespionage, and it has urged its allies to block the company’s 5G development.
Although India’s potential buying power gives it one way to slap at China, it has nowhere near the spending and lending capacity that China has used to increase its global influence.
Still, Indian officials have embraced the idea of being a democratic counterbalance to China, and the coronavirus has offered a chance to push that narrative as countries fume over Beijing’s handling of the pandemic.
Indian political figures went on the offensive after the pandemic began, criticizing China’s authoritarian system and its lack of transparency as the coronavirus spread beyond the city of Wuhan, where it is widely thought to have begun.
Vijay Gokhale, who recently retired as India’s foreign secretary and is still close to the government, wrote a lengthy opinion piece this month in which he blasted China’s handling of the pandemic. “The shortcomings of the regime,” he wrote, “will further fuel a debate on the superiority of the Chinese model as an alternative to democracy. Will this form the ideological underpinning for the birth of a new Cold War?”
The pandemic also gave Mr. Modi a chance to tap his country’s giant pharmaceutical industry to strengthen diplomatic ties. Diplomats stationed in India say that in the early days of the crisis, he and his foreign minister were “constantly working the phones” to offer countries help with medicines.
One Western diplomat felt that the coronavirus crisis had made India more eager to build stronger relationships to help it deal with China, and that diplomacy with India was going more smoothly than ever before.
“Everyone is more willing, privately, to talk about what to do with China in a post-Covid world,” the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The ways that China has influenced that world order can now more easily be discussed as we are all trying to figure out what the new world order is.
“India represents one path,” the diplomat added, “and China represents another.”
More immediately, India faces the prospect of an escalation at the border, where China had been building up its forces before the violence this week. On Wednesday, Mr. Modi broke his silence to promise a tough response.
“India wants peace,” he added, “but if provoked, India is capable of giving a befitting reply.”
China’s push at the border is not an isolated show of strength. Since the pandemic’s start, China has flexed harder on many different fronts: It sank a Vietnamese shipping boat, harassed Malaysian oil rig operations and tightened its control over Hong Kong in hopes of stamping out the pro-democracy movement there.
But India has several reasons to feel particularly hemmed in by China. Over the past decade, China has heavily courted India’s neighbors, unraveling New Delhi’s influence on its own doorstep.
As Indian and Chinese troops clashed in the Himalayas, Nepal’s government simultaneously claimed a sliver of territory on its border that India considers its own. India’s defense minister recently suggested that Nepal’s border actions were taken at the behest of China.
In Pakistan, India’s archrival, China is building huge infrastructure projects, some in territory that the Indian government disputes. With every project built, China is making it harder for India to hold on to its territorial claims.
And right off India’s southern coast, China took possession of a port in Sri Lanka after that country could not pay its debt to Beijing. Some Indian officials fear that China could militarize the port, which Sri Lanka denies.
“India went from having a monopoly of political and military power in the region to dealing with a marketplace of competition where China is increasingly predominant,” said Constantino Xavier, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. He predicted that the new wave of border violence would prompt India to push back harder.
Some see China’s buildup on the border as a calculated effort to keep India’s aspirations in check.
“China doesn’t particularly want India to succeed,” said Tanvi Madan, the director of the India Project at the Brookings Institution. “A weaker India will do less strategically in its own neighborhood, allowing China to step in more; and it will engage less in places like East Africa or in regional institutions, posing little challenge to China.”
China has also been sensitive about the prospects of closer ties between India and the West.
On Wednesday, Global Times, a mouthpiece for the Chinese Communist Party, published an editorial claiming that the United States had given Mr. Modi’s government false confidence, and that it would ultimately abandon India.
“The resources that the U.S. would invest in China-India relations are limited,” the editorial read. “What the U.S. would do is just extend a lever to India, which Washington can exploit to worsen India’s ties with China.”
Despite warm meetings between Mr. Modi and President Trump, their countries’ relationship has at times been rocky. But given China’s increasingly hard line in territorial disputes, some Indian officials fear there may be little choice but to look West.
In an opinion piece on Tuesday, Mr. Gokhale, the former Indian foreign secretary, said that countries could no longer ignore Beijing’s transgressions and must choose between the United States and China.
“In the post-Covid age,” he wrote, “enjoying the best of both worlds may no longer be an option.”