Beijing has admitted that there were Chinese casualties but has not given any details. New Delhi has not officially claimed any count of Chinese casualties either, but the Indian press and social media claim, with no evidence, that 43 Chinese soldiers were killed.
A shocked and stunned New Delhi took a full day to release statements acknowledging the debacle. In sharp contrast to the bellicose Indian statements that follow attacks by Pakistani militants, the Indian government’s reactions were mild, almost careful not to offend China.
Only on Wednesday did Mr. Modi discover his voice and declare that “peace-loving” India would ensure that the deaths of its soldiers would not go in vain. India’s foreign minister, who rarely holds back in railing against Pakistan, was restrained in his criticism of Beijing and agreed with his Chinese counterpart to “cool down” tensions on the ground “as soon as possible.” The reasoning was underlined by Rajiv Pratap Rudy, a spokesman of Mr. Modi’s party, who argued on television that the confrontation was “with China, not with Pakistan.”
With China not stepping back from the territory it has captured and the deaths of Indian soldiers, India’s beleaguered opposition parties are cornering the government and asking: Can Mr. Modi, who makes political capital out of his muscularity in dealing with Pakistan, adopt an entirely different set of standards in dealing with China?
Over the years, Mr. Modi has invested a great deal of personal and political capital into building a relationship with President Xi Jinping, whom he hosted in his hometown, Ahmedabad, during a state visit to India in 2014.
Mr. Modi also set up India as a soft target through his pusillanimous handling of an earlier border crisis in 2017 at Doklam, at the disputed tri-junction of China, India and Bhutan. This ended without bloodshed after a 73-day eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between Chinese troops and the Indian Army.
New Delhi was content with taking political credit for resolving the Doklam crisis peaceably, but the Chinese military violated the “mutual withdrawal” by sending troops and equipment back into the disputed area. Mr. Modi’s government chose to do nothing about the remilitarization of Doklam by the Chinese military. Beijing could have drawn a lesson from it: Seize disputed territory at multiple points, withdraw from a few places, and let New Delhi claim that as a victory.