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Why India’s border standoff with China reveals Modi weakness. It’s the economy, stupid

Home minister Amit Shah’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh has excited quite a few people, who say that India is for the first time paying China back in the same coin. But a close look at the situation on the India-China border cannot be complete without studying its diplomatic and political aspects.
First, India is hosting a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, likely in July, following which the G20 summit will be held in September. For both events, Chinese president and general secretary of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping, has been invited.
Question is, will he come if border tensions remain? Second, how far does India want to escalate these tensions, in the full knowledge that Xi won’t show up if Delhi pushes the tipping point?
This, then, is the dilemma. On the one side, India has entered a particularly sharp and divisive countdown to the general elections next year and everything is fair game – from the marital status of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his education degree to the fact that this month marks the third anniversary of the border standoff between India and China.
Geopolitical cocktail
The American poet TS Eliot famously described “April as the cruellest month.” In Delhi this year, it is also a time when the government is debating the balance between domestic political considerations, the economic relationship with China defined by rising trade, India’s growing relationship with the US and the Quad as well as the necessity to prevent a belligerent tone with Russia despite Moscow’s enhanced partnership with Beijing.
It’s enough to make one’s head spin. Add to the cocktail the fact that at the G20 summit, Xi Jinping will sit at the same round table as Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin. It will take all of Delhi’s diplomatic finesse to first persuade all the big powers to show up and then manage the tensions between the Big Three so that no one is offended and the G20 takes the agenda forward for the developing world.
This week, though, tensions with China are front and centre. The Chinese “renamed” 11 cities in Arunachal Pradesh, which it calls “Zangnan”, and said the whole area was part of China. In Delhi, diplomats rolled their eyes, knowing full well that this was pure Chinese rhetoric, but also understanding that it required a political response. So besides a statement by the Ministry of External Affairs, Amit Shah was sent to the Northeastern state to send the message that India is ready to take on the Chinese.
Nehru-did-nothing lens
It’s not so easy, of course. The standoff in eastern Ladakh continues, with about 60,000 troops from each side across the Line of Actual Control, despite 17 rounds of border talks. Chinese troops may not be occupying territory, but they are preventing Indian troops from patrolling areas in Depsang and Demchok— tensions in the latter area began before Modi came to power and are now also his headache.
So what can be done to return to status quo ante? It’s a tough task, especially now that security issues are also seen via the “Nehru-did-nothing” lens. During his visit to Arunachal Pradesh Monday, Shah reiterated that “before 2014” there was no development in the Northeast and that the Modi government had upped peace in the region, including reducing areas under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.
Perhaps, Indian politics is far too broken for us to expect that at least in India’s borderlands, “who did more, Nehru or Modi”, constitutes diplomatic irrelevance. Certainly, China will be smiling at the domestic contestation on full display in India—considering it outsmarted Nehru in 1962 and its attempts to do the same to the Modi government, circa 2020-2023, are ongoing.
Certainly, the Modi government is building border infrastructure of the kind that no government has built before. “The eastern Ladakh model is now being replicated across the 4,000 km-long LAC, with a road running parallel to it, up and down the mountainside,” retired Lieutenant General Satish Dua, former chief of the Integrated Defence Staff told The Print.
Chinese appeal Then there is the all-important economic driver of the bilateral relationship. Trade in 2022 has broken all previous records, touching $135.98 billion. China’s exports to India climbed to $118.5 billion, a year-on-year increase of 21.7 per cent, while India’s exports to China were only $17.48 billion, a year-on-year decline of 37.9 per cent.