The December 9 skirmish on the China-India border, which caused some 40 Indian and Chinese soldiers to be injured, could trigger a sea change in India’s attitude in dealing with China.
It comes two years after a similar border clash without firearms left 20 Indians and four Chinese dead, and proves that more than 24 months of diplomacy didn’t turn the situation around.
Moreover, the latest skirmish occurred while the first US-India joint military exercises were underway.
The clash occurred in the Tawang sector, in India’s northeastern territory of Arunachal Pradesh, a region bordering southwest China.
China and India together have some 40% of the global population, and both have nuclear arsenals.
In recent years, India has been inching closer to the US, joining the QUAD, a four-party alliance with Japan and Australia, and improving security ties with Vietnam, historically hostile to China.
Still, New Delhi so far has never given up its old ties with Moscow, which in turn had good connections with Beijing. This triangular relationship and the Indian effort to forge its own diplomacy kept many doors open with China and stopped short of full-fledged cooperation with America. India has been downplaying the recent loss of disputed land at the border, reportedly accounting for some 900 square kilometers. China has been reportedly occupying and fortifying some disputed areas, which previously were routinely peacefully patrolled by both countries. It appears to be a sign China is expecting and preparing for an escalation of border tensions, and thus wants to secure the best positions.
Moreover, China has developed roads and railways, linking the disputed area’s logistics to its industrial heartland, and it has upgraded tanks and trucks to operate at high altitudes. India is lagging behind on both fronts. India has much weaker logistics lines to the frontline and little to no high-altitude mechanized gear.
Russia’s ill-fated invasion of Ukraine weakened the trilateral relationship, as Russia appears no longer as strong as a year ago; the new skirmish could bring further damage.
The Indians also feel surrounded by the Chinese at sea. Beijing has built, or is building, naval bases in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Djibouti. By 2027, it is planning on having seven aircraft carrier groups, with the apparent aim of securing the shipping routes from Africa to China through the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal. New Delhi considers that its area of influence.
The US is suggesting India develop a new submarine fleet that could disrupt future Chinese sea lanes across its waters.
Plus, there are China’s old ties with Pakistan, which fought five wars with India and has an open controversy on Kashmir. There is also Chinese intervention in Sri Lanka and Myanmar’s politics, both formerly part of the English Indian empire and with close ties to New Delhi.
Finally, India is not happy with bilateral trade. It complains China is interested only in Indian raw materials and doesn’t import India’s sophisticated software or medical supplies to suppress India’s industrial development in those areas and boost China’s.
At a recent conference  Vijay Gokhale, India’s ex-national security advisor and a great expert on China argued that «India should be more transparent and credible in its political signaling, that it needs to pursue risk management at a higher politico-strategic level to prevent an escalation of tension, and that it must find common ground for a discussion of respective interests and concerns in the context of the Indo-Pacific region, which is becoming crucial to both countries».
But Mr. Gokhale also stressed that «China might need to revisit its assumption that an Indian response to its military coercion will remain indefinitely low».
Shivshankar Menon, Mr. Gokhale predecessor and a highly respected China specialist, went further. He suggested that India might improve ties with Taiwan to counter Beijing’s policies.
«With the worsening of India-China relations in the last decade, there are influential voices in the Indian strategic community calling for a more active Indian political engagement with Taiwan. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs spoke in 2018 of the need to review ‘India’s deferential foreign policy towards China,’ and of India ‘using all options including its relations with Taiwan’ in the event of China being unwilling to reconsider its stance on the border and sovereignty». 
China is allegedly trying to de-escalate the incident, and no major flare-up should be expected in the next future. But the consistent accumulation of elements of tension plus the weakening of the Russian side of the triangle could create an ominous momentum between the two. Here either China redresses all its policies about India, or India accepts to be one of China’s junior partners, or tensions will start a fire in one area or another.