Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pays a two-minute silence tribute to the soldiers who lost their lives in a clash between India and China, during a virtual conference with state chief ministers in New Delhi, June 17, 2020. Photo: Handout / AFP / PIB

MUMBAI – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s highly anticipated public statement on Friday proclaiming that China has not intruded on any Indian territory would appear to bring the two Asian giants back from the brink of a possible confrontation.

The Indian leader’s televised address said that the nation was “hurt and angry” at China’s killing of 20 Indian soldiers in a Himalayan border area on June 15, an altercation that many feared could lead to a tit-for-tat military escalation in the contested mountainous border area.      

Predictably, opposition leaders and retired military generals have accused Modi of being acquiescent to Beijing. Opposition stalwart Rahul Gandhi wrote in a tweet that Modi had “surrendered” Indian territory to “Chinese aggression” while demanding to know why and where the Indian soldiers were killed.

Those criticisms come against the backdrop of rising calls for India to boycott Chinese-made products and sever economic ties with Beijing in retaliation for the killings. Neither is apparently forthcoming judging by Modi’s somewhat conciliatory Friday address, which followed on a three-hour “all-party” meeting.

On Friday, local media reported that China had freed 10 Indian troops it had captured during the June 15 clash after several rounds of bilateral talks. China later denied it had detained any Indian troops.

Modi, twice elected on a nationalistic wave, now arguably faces the toughest challenge of his strongman rule. For a leader accustomed to riding roughshod over political opponents and ramming through controversial policies, China’s threat has nudged him towards political pragmatism.   

Indian Border Security Force (BSF) soldiers guard a highway leading towards Leh, bordering China, in Gagangir on June 17, 2020. Photo: AFP/Tauseef Mustafa

To be sure, Modi has limited room to maneuver with a spreading Covid-19 outbreak and a collapsing economy expected to register negative growth, the first time in over four decades. The last thing India needs now, some suggest, is a humiliating military defeat at the hands of China, as happened the last time the two Asian giants clashed back in 1962.

That would be the likely outcome in any conventional military confrontation, with China’s military believed to be several times more powerful than India’s. India is also highly reliant on Chinese imports, including inputs for its various manufacturing industries.   

Modi’s government has shied from an independent inquiry into the killings and the events leading up to the fatal altercation. China has maintained that India was to blame for the violence.

On Wednesday, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar reportedly told a senior Chinese diplomat that the clash was triggered after “the Chinese side sought to erect a structure in Galwan valley on our side of the LAC”, according to a ministry statement, referring to the Line of Actual Control, the de facto border.

At the same time, Chinese mouthpiece media, including the Global Times, have warned of severe repercussions if India launched any retaliatory military strike. China has not said if it suffered any casualties in the June 15 clash.  

Modi’s soft-pedaling cuts a sharp contrast to his response to perceived Pakistan aggression. In February 2019, Modi ordered airstrikes inside Pakistan-controlled Kashmir in retaliation for Pakistan’s killing of 40 Indian policemen near Srinagar in February 2019.

Those decisive strikes allowed Modi to present as an aggressive, dominant leader that would not be pushed around by regional rivals, even if they possessed nuclear weapons. That strongman appeal helped Modi win the 2019 general elections held three months later.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attend the group photo session during the BRICS Summit at the Xiamen International Conference and Exhibition Center in Xiamen, southeastern China's Fujian province on September 4, 2017. File Photo: Reuters / Kenzaburo Fukuhara / Pool
Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) during the BRICS Summit at the Xiamen International Conference and Exhibition Center in Xiamen, southeastern China’s Fujian province, September 4, 2017. File Photo: Pool

There are unanswered questions concerning whether Beijing ordered the troop killings, which were carried out with spiked clubs and rocks, not firearms. The crude weaponry, some say, suggests the incident spun out of control and was likely not ordered from above.  

Ironically, Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping had apparently struck up a good personal rapport, with the two leaders meeting more than a dozen times. Modi has visited China five times, the most by any Indian prime minister in 70 years. The two leaders have also held informal one-on-one meetings at Wuhan and Mahabalipuram.

Opposition politicians have criticized Modi’s personalized approach to foreign relations, claiming it lacks transparency and exposes the country to unforeseen risks. Some have claimed Modi’s personalized ties with Xi may have exposed his weaknesses as a leader. 

Modi made a historic and bold decision to remove the special status for Jammu & Kashmir, and carved out Ladakh as a centrally administered federal territory in August 2019. The move drew sharp reactions from China and Pakistan, which raised the issue at UN Security Council fora but failed to garner multilateral support.

India was elected to the UN’s Security Council earlier this week.

Analysts say China’s killings could be direct retaliation for the move. China remains unrelenting in pushing its agenda of occupying territories in Ladakh for its long term objectives. As Modi addressed the nation on Friday night, China staked its claim on Galwan valley, historically a part of India’s Ladakh.

China claims about 90,000 square kilometers of territory in India’s northeast, while India says China occupies 38,000 square kilometers of its territory in the Aksai Chin Plateau, a contiguous part of the Ladakh region.

“For many years, the Chinese border troops have been patrolling and on duty in this region. Since April this year, Indian troops have unilaterally and continuously built roads, bridges and other facilities at the LAC [Line of Actual Control] in the Galwan Valley,” China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said in a statement after the killings.

India has also beefed up its military presence in Ladakh, including the deployment of more jet firepower to Leh. The chief of India’s Air Force has said the country is prepared for any eventuality, though it preferred peace. Both nations are nuclear-armed and capable of launching intercontinental missiles over thousands of miles.

Despite Modi’s perceived as a tepid response, it’s not clear yet he has lost much political support by not picking a bigger fight with China. He has benefitted from a weak and fragmented opposition, which has tried to capitalize on the China crisis, though so far to little impactful effect.