In response to a Chinese deployment of roughly 5000 soldiers and armoured vehicles, the Indian military has increased its presence in the Himalayan hinterland region known as Ladakh. This move comes after attempts to resolve the issue through diplomatic channels, with tensions now reminiscent of the 1962 war over the same region. The standoff began on May 5 when Indian and Chinese troops clashed near Pangong Tso. Although there were no deaths or shots fired, soldiers on both sides were injured after physical skirmishes. Since then, both governments have steadily increased their build-up of troops.

Chinese and Indian officials initiated a series of negotiations between May 22 and 23, but failed to arrive at a resolution. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian commented that Beijing was committed to peace and stability in border areas, dispelling fears of gridlock between the two countries. On Tuesday, May 26, Prime Minister Narendra Modi discussed the Ladakh issue with National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat. One advisor, S L Naramsimhan, publicly commented that India has chosen to pursue a diplomatic course of action while maintaining a tough posture at the border.

The stand-off in Ladakh reflects emerging geopolitical tensions between China’s strategic interests in Central Asia and India’s pursuit of economic growth without committing to a larger regional bloc. In 2019, India signalled a clear intention to follow through with its larger domestic policy in Indian Occupied Kashmir (IOK). China, with Aksai Chin as a stake in the region and a 2,500-mile border with India, realises that India’s decision to unilaterally annex part of IOK appears as a direct threat to China’s expansionism and foreign policy interests. China sees these moves as undermining its plans for regional connectivity between the country’s western Xinjiang Province and Central Asia including Pakistan—an absolutely critical component of its flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

More than anything, China wants the mild escalation in Ladakh to operate as a deterrent – a reminder that domestic policies alone cannot overcome its irresistible geopolitical rise. In this sense, China has eyes on a bigger prize and has learned a crucial lesson about India’s own internal constraints that came to the fore with its recent IOK decision. That is, China realises that India has shown a willingness to renege on their previous commitments. All this might jeopardise any formal relations between the two countries. Modi’s actions in IOK caused a rupture in India-China relations because it sent a clear signal to Chinese leadership that India will pursue its own domestic interest at the expense of other regional allies.

On May 20, Brookings India hosted a webinar to discuss a recent Impact Paper written by Ambassador Shivshanker Menon detailing India’s Foreign Affairs Strategy amid growing tension in the “Indo-Pacific” region. A former National Security Advisor to Manmohan Singh, Menon’s paper reiterates the view that India can protect its national interests through a policy of “strategic autonomy” rather than alliance building with other countries. This “wait-and-see” approach has undergone many articulations throughout India’s history – the most recent expansive example being NonAlignment 2.0 in 2012.

At its core, India’s strategic autonomy views the transformation of the country into a “strong, and prosperous, and modern state” as the central goal of its foreign affairs. Yet because India’s economy (and future growth plans) require economic linkages with the outside world, the country cannot remain insular. For instance, in 1991, trade in goods accounted for 18 percent of India’s GDP but by 2014 that number shot up to 50 percent. In addition, roughly 80 percent of India’s imports are essential for maintaining crucial industries. These imports include energy, crude oil, fertilisers, metals, and even some agricultural products like moong dhal.

While the country is required to deepen its economic relationships in order to sustain growth rates, the Modi government has been keen on promoting self-reliance and protectionist policies – particularly in trade (e.g., increased tariffs) and manufacturing (e.g., Made in India). In a May 12 primetime address, Prime Minister Modi reiterated this policy of “self-reliance” and focused on infrastructure and technology as two critical industries for the country’s economic growth. In terms of geopolitics, self-reliance blends well into strategic autonomy: India will prioritise itself first and restrain from getting involved into larger regional politics in order to take advantage of its core geography and budding economy. But for many reasons, this strategy may backfire and send India on the path towards at best alienating existing alliances and friendships, and at worst creating new enemies for the country that is already reeling from domestic political instability amid the rise of Hindu nationalism.

The conflict in Ladakh is evidence of a longer-term issue in economic and geopolitical development. As tension between the United States and China continues to grow under President Trump, India’s NonAlignment 2.0 seeks to provide a “third option”: a post-modern developmental model. India may well push for an India-centric approach. However, strategic autonomy will most likely force Indian leadership to either move towards the US, a trend already well underway, or ultimately embrace China’s larger ambitions. India’s economic situation means that self-reliance is impossible in the short-term. India’s economy cannot however grow, unless it fosters ties with the outside world. As the United States pursues aggressive decoupling from China, it will double-down on its strategic alliance building through trade deals and military security arrangements. Ultimately, India will find it increasingly more difficult to keep both the Americans and the Chinese happy and lack the political capital to sell its own development model or achieve neutrality.

The Indian government will obviously try to find a balance between these two poles, a strategy that has so far proven somewhat successful. But this may become increasingly difficult to accomplish as it pursues unilateral action in IOK, something the recent standoff in Ladakh sheds light on. The policy of strategic autonomy may create more enemies for India and lose the trust of its friends. And in an increasingly more confrontational world, this could spell disaster for its pursuit of self-reliance and non-alignment.

Haider Zafar and Hunter Dorwart

The writers are law students at the George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C.