China Expands Military at India Border as Modi Accused of Surrendering Land

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is facing domestic criticism for allegedly surrendering land to Chinese forces along the disputed Himalayan border between the two nations, where dozens of soldiers are believed to have died in hand-to-hand fighting last month.

Modi, a populist right-wing leader who secured a second term in office last year, has tried to frame the violence and subsequent de-escalation as a story of Indian success.

The prime minister visited the border last week, telling troops: "History is witness that expansionist forces have either lost or were forced to turn back," referring to Chinese forces in the region.

But The New York Times reported this weekend that the Chinese have undertaken a major build-up of forces in the disputed area, setting up new tents and storage facilities supported by artillery pieces, boats and even tanks.

Citing satellite images of the valleys and mountains that form the Line of Actual Control⁠—a loose demarcation line established after the 1962 Sino-Indian War⁠—the Times and other observers have said that Chinese troops have maintained positions on the Indian side of the frontier despite Modi's claims of victory.

Undeterred by the brutal hand-to-hand fighting and international condemnation—including from the U.S.—Chinese forces appear to be there to stay. India said earlier this month it had also deployed more forces to the contested areas to match the Chinese build-up.

Pro-government Indian media coverage has praised Modi's response, claiming that the prime minister "called China's bluff."

The mouthpiece of the right-wing paramilitary Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh group—aligned with Modi's nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and counting the prime minister as a former member—said Modi was "leading from the front" in contrast to Chinese President Xi Jinping, who it described as "ambitious" but "insecure."

But not everyone has fallen in line behind Modi, though politicians and media from across the Indian spectrum have condemned China and warned of consequences for any further provocations.

Rahul Gandhi, the former leader of the opposition Indian Congress Party and a member of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, has repeatedly demanded more of the prime minister. On Sunday, he asked Modi on Twitter how China "took away the sacred land of Mother India."

The opposition has struggled to handle Modi's BJP government, which remains widely popular despite allegations that the prime minister is fanning communal tensions and failing to handle the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. For Congress and other Modi critics, his perceived weakness in the face of Chinese aggression could be useful.

Gareth Price, a senior research fellow at the Chatham House think tank, told Newsweek that Modi's brand of Hindu nationalism is "all about" projecting strength, but that India is facing a China that is clearly richer and more powerful.

"It is an opportunity to show Modi is not as tough as he thinks he is," Price explained, even though a relatively pliant media and weak opposition means the PM will likely not suffer too much.

Gandhi shared an interview with Business Standard journalist Colonel Ajai Shukla, who has repeatedly claimed that Chinese troops have not disengaged in key disputed areas and are refusing to withdraw from occupied Indian territory.

"The government is misleading the media," Shukla said, claiming that the Chinese incursions represent "the largest loss of territory to China since the 1962 war."

Former Indian National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon told The Hindu this weekend that both sides are currently in "the fog of peace," with not enough information or clarity on China's motivations.

India's relationship with the U.S., he said, could be part of the puzzle. Modi and President Donald Trump have lauded their personal friendship and committed to closer ties, underscored by large weapons deals. After the border clashes, U.S. lawmakers and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sided with New Delhi against Beijing.

"What they're doing suggests that they've come to the conclusion that India has already crossed a certain point in its relationship with the U.S. and is effectively working with the U.S. on China," Menon told The Hindu. If they have come to that conclusion, they could be doing this to actually show the U.S. that, look, they can't count on India as an ally in dealing with China."

Tensions had been rising along the mountainous frontier since April when Chinese troops were accused of crossing the LoC and setting up military positions on the disputed territory. This followed years of Chinese activity along the border, with investment plowed into new roads, surveillance systems and military posts to better serve the remote frontier.

India has long lagged behind China along the border, though in recent years has accelerated plans for new roads and other supply infrastructure in response to Chinese activity.

Confrontations and clashes along the 2,520-mile-long border are not uncommon, but last month's violence was the first time that any troops had been killed by hostile action since the 1962 conflict.

This article has been updated to include comments from Gareth Price.

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Indian army soldiers drive vehicles along mountainous roads as they take part in a military exercise at Thikse in Leh district of the union territory of Ladakh, India on July 4, 2020. MOHD ARHAAN ARCHER/AFP via Getty Images/Getty