NEW DELHI -- Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday paid a surprise visit to Ladakh to take stock of the situation on the ground, more than two weeks after 20 Indian soldiers were killed in violent clashes with Chinese troops in the Himalayan region along the disputed border between the two countries.
After every attack, India has emerged stronger, Modi said, addressing soldiers during his visit, calling for development rather than expansionism, and saying that it is not the weak but only the brave who can initiate peace.
"The era of expansionism is over," he said, in an oblique reference to Chinese strategic ambitions. "The whole world is against expansionist [forces]. Today, the world is dedicated [to work] for development."
Modi said his government's spending on border infrastructure had risen threefold, leading to development on the border, including speedy construction of roads and bridges. "We will make a strong and self-reliant India," he vowed.
"I salute you, and once again pay tribute to the martyrs" who were killed in the June 15 Galwan Valley clash with the Chinese troops in eastern Ladakh, Modi told the troops.
The visit is significant as it is a message of support for the soldiers stationed there and also sends a strong political signal to Beijing that New Delhi is serious about resolving the issue.
"The Prime Minister's Ladakh visit to meet soldiers ... has definitely boosted the morale of the army," Defense Minister Rajnath Singh tweeted in Hindi, expressing appreciation for Modi's step. Earlier there were reports that Singh was to visit Ladakh. Instead, Modi made an unannounced trip himself.
Modi has come under criticism from opponents over his handling of the border standoff with China. His latest move also sends a message to Beijing over what is seen in India as a Chinese intrusion into its territory.
"Modi has done well to visit the Ladakh front," Brahma Chellaney, a geostrategist and author, tweeted.
"The visit, by signaling India's resolve to drive back China's incursions, makes amends for his damaging June 19 speech, and his government's weekslong downplaying of the border situation until fatal clashes on June 15 lifted the lid," he said.
He was referring to Modi's remarks on the India-China clash, in which Modi stated that neither Indian territory nor any military post were captured. Modi's comments caused an uproar, with the government later issuing an official statement saying, "Attempts are being made in some quarters to give a mischievous interpretation to [his] remarks."
"The message from Prime Minister Modi's visit to Ladakh is very clear. It is that India is raising the stakes as far as its military and nonmilitary options are concerned, after having already taken economic actions, such as banning of Chinese apps and [barring] Chinese companies from participating in key Indian infrastructure projects," N.C. Bipindra, founder and editor of defense and strategic news portal Defence.Capital, told the Nikkei Asian Review.
India on Monday banned TikTok, WeChat and dozens of other Chinese apps, citing concerns over national security and data privacy. Separately, Nitin Gadkari, the road transport and highways minister, reportedly said on Wednesday that Chinese companies will not be allowed to take part in the country's highway projects, including through joint ventures.
Modi was accompanied by chief of defense staff Gen. Bipin Rawat and army chief Gen. Manoj Mukund Naravane, and briefed by senior officers at Nimu in Ladakh, local ANI news agency reported. The region is 11,000 feet (3,335 meters) above sea level, in rough terrain on the banks of the Indus river.
India and China have been working through diplomatic and military channels to ease tensions, but no major progress has been reported so far. The two sides have blamed each other for the deadly June 15 clash, the first fatal confrontation between the two countries in 45 years.
India says there were casualties on the Chinese side as well, but Beijing has not released any figures. The 3,500 km Line of Actual Control serves as the de facto border, over which the two countries fought a war in 1962.
Modi's visit comes a day after the Defense Ministry approved procurement of fighter jets, missile systems and other military equipment at a cost of 389 billion rupees ($5.2 billion).
Analysts say the tensions along the border show no sign of easing. "The faceoff between the India[n] and Chin[ese] armies will continue for many days, and even months, possibly because of the hardline stand that both nations are taking vis-a-vis the undemarcated Line of Actual Control," Bipindra said, adding that the ambiguity on where the LAC lies is a cause for concern as the conflict is likely to go on precisely because of efforts to change the status quo at the LAC.