Indian and Chinese soldiers have been caught in a staring match in what, according to New Delhi, is Bhutanese territory for more than two months now. Initial commentary from analysts in India was cautiously optimistic, applauding New Delhi’s resolve in standing up to Chinese attempts to change the status quo in the disputed tri-junction between India, China and Bhutan. Amid a stream of belligerent remarks from China and its state media as well as a troubling skirmish involving soldiers pelting each other with stones in Kashmir, observers now seem to be a bit more jittery about the dangers that come with a prolonged standofff between nuclear-armed neighbours.

The most recent incident was a scuffle between Chinese and Indian soldiers in Eastern Ladakh on Tuesday, with an unidentified official telling the Times of India that personnel on both sides sustained injuries as a result of the stone pelting. Senior army officials from both countries reportedly held a flag meeting following the incident, though there has been no official comment on the matter – beyond India acknowledging that there had been an incident – and some suggest that the flag meet too was inconclusive. Meanwhile, there has been a steady stream of critical commentary from Chinese officials and state media, including most recently a propaganda video that used racist visuals to mock Indians.

In the immediate aftermath of the incident, when Indian soldiers moved into disputed Bhutanese territory in the Doklam plateau to prevent the Chinese from changing the status quo, response from Indian observers was mostly positive. The broad belief was that India had to send a message to Beijing, which has been flexing its muscles across its borders. “China is going to lose face, since it has made its threats publicly,” a general anonymously told Business Standard. “And India is going to come out looking like a credible and reliable partner for Bhutan.”

India’s endgame?

Many still believe that to be the case, with some conventional wisdom presuming China would want to resolve the issue peacefully before the BRICS meeting in early September, or ahead of the Chinese Communist Party’s Congress expected in November. However, the Ladakh stone-pelting incident, and the consistently provocative comments from the foreign ministry in Beijing, are prompting some to ask whether “wait and watch” is enough of a policy.

“What’s Modi’s endgame? Does the Prime Minister even have one?” asks columnist Mihir S Sharma. “Or are we in the sort of position where we’re just sitting around and hoping that nothing bad will happen, and that the Chinese will eventually get bored and stop complaining?”

Rajesh Rajagopalan, a security analyst and professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, says India cannot presume that the threats coming from Beijing, as well as the heated rhetoric being pushed out by state media cannot be ignored.

“The 1962 war provides a worrying parallel. One of the primary failures of Indian policy then was the conviction that China would not resort to war despite the fact that Indian and Chinese military forces were confronting each other,” writes Rajagopalan.

New Delhi’s moves

There are indications that India is doing more than just waiting for Beijing to blink and come back to the drawing board. Currently, India’s demand is for both sides troops to withdraw a certain distance together, after which talks can happen. China insists that India should asks its troops to go back first, since in its eyes, they are on Chinese territory. Even as this seemingly intractable situation has persisted, India has been working the diplomatic channels with other countries.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump spoke to each other on the occasion of India’s 71st Independence Day, and resolved to “enhance peace and stability across the Indo-Pacific region” by moving to a 2+2 dialogue format that will see the External Affairs Minister and Defence Ministry regularly meeting America’s Secretaries of State and Defence. The other country India has this arrangement with is Japan, said on Thursday that it supports India’s position that “all parties involved do not resort to unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force.”

Neither of those developments were received well by Beijing. Meanwhile, especially after the stone-pelting skirmish in Ladakh, international media have started covering the stand-off, in terms that suggest it might be the spark that turns into a regional war. More international scrutiny might convince both countries to be more careful or make them more defensive about their international images.

On Friday, India’s external affairs ministry insisted it would continue to engage with China, but also mentioned that it had not received hydrological data from Beijing on the Brahmaputra river, which New Delhi uses in its flood planning every year. Meanwhile, India appears to be tightening regulatory rules in a manner that China might see as being directly aimed at its companies. The longer the standoff continues without much in the way of resolution, the more likely it is for the screws to be tightened on either side.

“None of this is to suggest that a Chinese attack is inevitable. But prudence dictates that Indian security managers must assume it is instead of comforting themselves with various reasons why it might not be,” writes Rajagopalan in his piece. “India can hope that diplomacy and deterrence can together hold China, but also recognise that this is far from certain. India cannot afford magical thinking when it comes to a confrontation with China.”