After then-prime minister Rajiv Gandhi's visit to China in 1988, China-India relations improved. The two countries began to explore confidence-building measures in the border areas in 1993 and signed two agreements in 1996 and 2005, stipulating that both armies should not use weapons in border conflicts. Although these regulations limited the scale of the conflict in the border areas, it had a negative impact on China’s defensive position. After Modi came to power, the Indian government pursued the more aggressive "Doval doctrine" (credited to national security advisor Ajit Doval) in dealing with border issues, doubling down on offensive defense.
Third, the performance of India's frontier forces, as well as the rewards and promotions for front-line officers and soldiers, are closely related to the effective implementation of the offensive-defense policy. India's border troops rotate regularly and compete against each other, making them more willing to take risks. In recent years, with the improvement of India's infrastructure construction capacity in the region of the LAC, Indian soldiers have been able to reach more places in the area. This only heightened tensions between the two sides. Because the PLA abides by the agreements on confidence-building measures in place since 1993, the Chinese soldiers lack the capacity to take effective counter-measures against Indian provocation, which only prompts the Indian frontline forces to act more brazenly.
Finally, the aggressive border policy of the Modi government is closely related to the current international environment. As the US regards China as a strategic competitor, Beijing is facing increasing pressure from Washington. Since Donald Trump came to power, the US has put forward an Indo-Pacific strategy, with its relations with India an important pillar of this approach.
India's policymakers passionately believe that under pressure from the US, China would have to restrain itself from reacting to Delhi’s offensive defense. Modi has sought to bolster the US strategy by putting forward his own "Indo-Pacific vision", trying to take advantage of Washington’s willingness to engage as a way to counter Beijing.
In 2017, the US, Japan, Australia and India revived the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the Quad, which was upgraded to foreign-minister level in September 2019 at Delhi’s initiative. The group has launched a regional infrastructure-development program that is widely viewed as an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). India has also participated in bilateral and trilateral military cooperation with the US, Japan and Australia. Delhi believes that by relying on these alliances, it can intimidate China and continue its border policy.
The Galwan conflict and, before that, the Donglang (Doklam) standoff in 2017 are the inevitable results of India's policy towards China against the background of strategic competition between the US and China. Donglang took place before Modi paid his first visit to meet Trump and before the US-Japan-India Malabar naval exercises. It preceded the Xiamen BRIC summit, the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, and the full implementation of a Chinese military reform initiative. Indian policymakers had calculated exactly when they could have troops cross the established border and enter China's Donglang region to face off with the PLA.
India gained no benefit in the end, but because China did react toughly at that time, India became bolder in their approach to the border issue. A clash such as what happened at Galwan became inevitable.
The PLA’s counterattack had been restrained. Most of the deaths of the Indian army did not result from direct conflict but from poor logistical support in the cold high-altitude environment.
Since the conflict, nationalist sentiment in India has predictably risen, putting the Modi government in a dilemma. Opposition pressure has prompted the Modi government to take a tough stance, possibly even to retaliate militarily against China. Hardliners are calling for a stronger alliance with the US. But Delhi is wary of going down that road, concerned that enlisting Washington’s support would further complicate relations with China. Besides, China holds key military advantages over India. Another clash could be disastrous for Delhi and Modi’s dignity.
The prime minister hopes to continue to rally support with a nationalist appeal but fears that public sentiment could spiral out of control. Yet at the meeting with all the Indian political parties, Modi said that the army had been given full freedom to deal with the situation on the ground. This could increase the possibility of another, possibly more serious border clash.
Some Indian analysts and commentators have sued for calm and restraint. strategists in India reflected. Senior journalist and national security expert Manoj Joshi described the Galwan incident as a “needless tragedy” and appealed to the Indian government not to be rattled by China. He rejected military retaliation against Beijing, a boycott of Chinese goods, a formal military alliance with the US, and the spending of billions to modernize the armed forces. “None of these can address the situation India confronts today,” said Joshi. “This is neither the time to boycott a major economic power or get into a shooting war with anyone. Anger against China is understandable, but there are times in one’s life, when you must swallow back bile and get on with life. Only sustained high economic growth will have the means of offsetting China.”
A rational approach. But such restraint will not solve the fundamental problem: how Hindu nationalism in India is having a negative spillover effect and creating instability in South Asia. Delhi’s China policy makes it difficult to correct the original mistake of 1962: Nehru’s pursuit of the forward policy at its border with China. From China’s perspective, he is responsible for the tensions and acrimony in China-India relations today. The enduring impact of this historic miscalculation in relations with China is closely related to India’s vigorous domestic politics. Opposition parties such as the Congress Party are accusing Modi of weakness on China, while Indian media are stoking nationalist fervor. If the Indian government cannot restrain itself from reacting impulsively to these pressures, the border dispute between China and India will never be solved.