Assessing India’ China Policy in 2021

What is the sum total of the Indian government’s achievements in dealing with China in the last year? 

One, on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) itself, in the rush to create the semblance of ‘achievement’, the Indian government proved too eager to make concessions and to show as if the bilateral relationship was getting back on track. As a result, the Chinese got the Indian Army to vacate the Kailash ranges occupied at the end of August last year in return for disengagement from just two points – Pangong Tso and Gogra – in the opening months of the year. The entire process has subsequently stalled with Hot Springs, Demchok and Depsang remaining points of friction. This was entirely predictable and indeed, the government had fair warning.[1]

What is worse, there has been an attempt to portray Depsang as a ‘legacy’ issue predating the latest tensions[2], which is another way of saying that not only does government not have much of a roadmap for the final resolution of the boundary dispute, it is willing to allow the Chinese to dictate the nature and pace of changes on the ground at the LAC – that it does not see the disturbance in the status quo as an opportunity to try new things but as a crisis to be contained. That is not the mark of a government that comprehends or prioritizes national security issues, leave alone India’s international image in the neighbourhood or globally. For surely, a country that does not acknowledge that it has lost territory, let alone retake such territory, cannot command much respect in other capitals.

Two, while New Delhi has shown greater gumption since Galwan in partnering with the US as well as in initiatives of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended the first face-to-face summit of the Quad heads-of-government in Washington in September[3] – the stench of inertia about India has not quite dissipated. The Indian government is frequently at pains to describe the Quad as not being aimed at ‘any third country’ and to state that it was not a military alliance.[4] The Indian Navy has even been careful to classify the Quad as an MEA initiative different from the Malabar naval exercises.[5]

If the Quad is not aimed at China and is only interested in the provision of public goods in the Indo-Pacific, then what exactly sets it apart from similar Chinese initiatives in the region? And how can India (or any other Quad member) impose costs on those countries that seek to play both sides or side only with Chinese initiatives? 

The US decision to share nuclear submarine technology with Australia creating the Australia-UK-US, or AUKUS, alliance on the eve of the Quad summit is as much a message to India as it is to China. The Indian government’s media management on China policy will only work in India and that too, only among a willingly gullible audience – an unfortunately large one these days – not among the professionals or in foreign countries. The Indian government has disclosed no strategy to evict Chinese intruders from areas within its perception of the LAC and this cannot have escaped the US’ attention. Coming over a year after the Galwan clashes, the AUKUS is a sign that Washington is unwilling to put all its eggs in the India basket.

In the coming year then, what can we expect from the Indian government in terms of China policy? 

New Delhi has appointed a ‘China hand’ in the MEA as the new ambassador in Beijing. Given his prior record – including a role in defunding India’s oldest research institute focused on China and East Asia, the Institute of Chinese Studies – it would be unwise to expect any great creativity in India’s thinking on China or in its actions in Beijing. In any case, a mere change of personnel at the Indian embassy in Beijing will not be sufficient to bring about changes in Chinese behaviour.

The Indian Army continues to lack several capabilities and resources required for a full-fledged conflict along the LAC – sufficient numbers of Chinese interpreters and inadequate analysis of open-source intelligence, for example – and there are many areas along the LAC where it remains far from well-placed to counter the Chinese as the events in eastern Ladakh last year show. These are necessarily gaps that will take years to overcome but that does not mean that India needs to play the waiting game or cannot take the initiative. It certainly has the wherewithal to engage in salami slicing or capture of territory across parts of the LAC and the firepower and the tactical acumen to fight the Chinese to a standstill in many areas along the LAC. But even these limited actions designed to tell the Chinese in no unequivocal terms that India will not be pushed around or allow the Chinese to solidify the post-Galwan status quo appear to be constrained by the Indian government’s lack of understanding of the actual political objectives as well as constraints of the Chinese side. Instead of responding in kind to China’s actions last year, the Indian government seems to have allowed itself to be taken in by Chinese propaganda and its sabre-rattling.

In fact, it appears that the Indian government lacks the political will to deal with China firmly and unambiguously. On the one hand, India is upping ties with the US which China considers its archenemy while on the other New Delhi also engages with the Chinese in talk-shops like the BRICS and the Russia-India-China trilateral under the mistaken impression that these somehow assuage Chinese concerns or buy time. 

More importantly, the Indian government appears distracted by, or perhaps is even more concerned about, domestic politics – the upcoming state elections in Uttar Pradesh, for example – to pay much attention to national security. The delay in naming a successor to Gen. Bipin Rawat as CDS following his tragic death is a case in point. A government which comprehends India’s national security challenges does not take two weeks (and still counting) to fill a crucial leadership position in the military hierarchy at a time when there are multiple active disputes on its borders. This is a delay that sends wrong signals to friends and adversaries alike. 

The only saving grace might be that China’s current trajectory will continue to offer the India government plenty of opportunities for course correction in the coming year.

Originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘India’s China policy in 2021 has been a failure’, Moneycontrol, 30 December 2021.


[1] https://www.moneycontrol.com/news/opinion/lac-stand-off-lets-not-talk-to-china-for-the-sake-of-talking-5839701.html

[2] https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/lt-gen-yk-joshi-recalls-most-tense-moment-in-india-china-standoff-in-ladakh-exclusive-1770274-2021-02-17

[3] https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/09/24/fact-sheet-quad-leaders-summit/

[4] https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/some-countries-portrayed-quad-as-military-alliance-to-raise-unsubstantiated-fears-army-chief/articleshow/83085799.cms

[5] https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/navy-distances-quad-concept-from-4-nation-malabar-exercise/articleshow/79571651.cms

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Jabin T. Jacob

China analysis from an Indian perspective

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