For decades, India has tried to thwart Pakistan in a protracted dispute over Kashmir, the achingly beautiful Himalayan territory claimed by both countries but divided between them.
That relentless competition made Pakistan always the focus of New Delhi’s foreign policy.
But in the last two years, since a deadly border clash between Indian and Chinese soldiers in Kashmir’s Ladakh region, policy makers in New Delhi have been increasingly turning their focus to Beijing, a significant shift in policy as the nation celebrates 75 years of independence.
India’s ever-growing economy, which is now vastly larger than Pakistan’s, combined with Beijing’s increasingly assertive push for influence across Asia, mean that “New Delhi has increasingly grown Beijing-centric,” said Lt. Gen. D.S. Hooda, who from 2014 to 2016 headed Indian military’s Northern Command, which controls Kashmir, including Ladakh.
Kashmir has suffered insurgencies, lockdowns and political subterfuge since India and Pakistan gained independence from British colonial rule in 1947, and has been at the heart of two of the four wars India has fought with Pakistan and China. The three countries’ tense borders meet at the disputed territory, in the world’s only three-way nuclear confrontation.
Starting in the 1960s, India was an active member of the Non-Aligned Movement, a grouping of over 100 countries that theoretically did not align with any major power during the Cold War. Despite disputes with neighboring Pakistan and China, India’s nonaligned stance remained a bedrock of its foreign policy, with its diplomats focused mainly on upending Pakistan’s claim to Kashmir.
“Kashmir was in a way central to our foreign policy concerns,” said Kanwal Sibal, a career diplomat who was India’s foreign secretary in 2002-2003.
But the current military standoff between India and China over their disputed border in Ladakh set off a grave escalation in tensions between the two Asian giants. Despite 17 rounds of diplomatic and military talks, the tense standoff continues.
For decades, India believed China did not represent a military threat, said Hooda, the former military commander. But that calculus changed in mid-2020 when a clash high in Karakoram mountains in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley set off the military tensions.
“Galwan represents a strategic inflection point,” said Constantino Xavier, a fellow at the Centre for Social and Economic Progress, a New Delhi-based policy group. It “helped create a new Indian consensus about the need to reset the entire relationship with China, and not just solve the boundary issue.”
Soldiers from the two sides fought a medieval-style battle with stones, fists and clubs, leaving at least 20 Indian and four Chinese soldiers dead.
The fighting came a year after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist-led government stripped Kashmir of its statehood, scrapped its semi-autonomy, and clamped down on local politicians, journalists and communications.
The government also split the Muslim-majority region into two federally administered territories — Ladakh and Jammu-Kashmir — and ended inherited protections on land and jobs.
The government insisted the moves involved only administrative changes, part of a long-held Hindu nationalist pledge to assimilate overwhelmingly Muslim Kashmir into the country.
Pakistan reacted with fury to India’s changes, asserting that Kashmir was an international dispute and any unilateral change in its status was a violation of international law and U.N. resolutions on the region.
But the main diplomatic challenge to New Delhi’s moves in Kashmir came from an unexpected rival: China.
Beijing scathingly criticized New Delhi and raised the issue at the United Nations Security Council, where the Kashmir dispute was debated -- again inconclusively -- for the first time in nearly five decades.
India’s line of argument remained consistent: To the international community it insisted that Kashmir was a bilateral issue with Pakistan. To Pakistan it reiterated that Kashmir was an Indian internal affair. And to critics on the ground, it stubbornly asserted that Kashmir was an issue of terrorism and law and order.
Initially, New Delhi had faced a largely peaceful anti-India movement in the portion of Kashmir it held. However, a crackdown on dissent led to a full-blown armed rebellion against Indian control in 1989. A protracted conflict since then has led to tens of thousands of deaths in the region.
Kashmir turned into a potential nuclear flashpoint as India and Pakistan became nuclear-armed states in 1998. Their standoff attracted global attention, with then-U.S. President Bill Clinton describing Kashmir as “the most dangerous place in the world.”
Many Indian foreign policy experts believe New Delhi was successful over the decades in blocking foreign pressure for change in Kashmir, despite deep sentiment against Indian rule in the region.
Now, New Delhi policymakers face the fundamental challenge of a China that is exerting more power in Asia and supporting Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir.
Pakistan “now operates in a more complicated political role as a partner of Chinese power,” said Paul Staniland, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago. “This gives it some clout and influence.”
With geopolitical rivalries deepening in the extended region, Kashmiris have been largely silenced, with their civil liberties curbed, as India has displayed zero tolerance for any form of dissent.
China’s rise as a global power has also pushed India closer to the U.S. and to the Quad, a new Indo-Pacific strategic alliance among the U.S., India, Australia and Japan that accuses Beijing of economic coercion and military maneuvering in the region upsetting the status quo.
India’s old nonaligned stance, rooted in the Cold War era when rivalries were playing out thousands of miles (kilometers) from its borders, has come to an end. The entire region has become a focus of geostrategic competition and great power rivalry close to India’s borders.
“We recognize the need to hedge against China to curb its ambitions by making it known that there is a new line of security that is being built against any aggressiveness by China, which is at the core of the Quad,” said Sibal, the former diplomat.
With the Quad now central to discussions among India’s strategic thinkers, New Delhi has massively ramped up infrastructure along its long, treacherous and undemarcated border with China. Beijing views the Quad as an attempt to contain its economic growth and influence.
“This is how we are sending a signal to China that we are ready to join with others to curb you,” Sibal said.