Herald View: China and the 56'' Boast

This time Parliament was in session, and yet the government chose to keep mum till the border incident was reported in a section of the media

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Getty Images

Herald View

It is worrying for a nation when its government and the ruling party expend all their energy on “befitting” replies to a questioning Opposition rather than tackling hostile intruders on its borders. Small mercy that this time round— unlike at the time of the 2020 Galwan incursion, when the Prime Minister simply denied the fact in Parliament, never even mind that 20 Indian jawans had died in the clashes—the government was quicker to acknowledge the December 9 incident at Yangtse in Arunachal Pradesh.

The defence minister’s statement in Parliament on December 13 admitted the Chinese had “tried to alter the status quo on the Line of Actual Control (LAC)”. When China invaded India sixty years ago, in 1962, Parliament was not in session; a special session was convened, during the invasion, to discuss the threat to the sovereignty of India. This time Parliament was in session, and yet the government chose to keep mum till the border incident was reported in a section of the media. Worse, it stonewalled any discussion on the border clashes on the pretext that the issue was ‘sensitive’.

The attempt to downplay the border clashes and to spin it as “differences in perception” about the border on the two sides is prompted partly by embarrassment that this incident looks like a rejection of PM Modi’s attempts at a rapprochement. He has visited China far more frequently than any other Indian Prime Minister: in his first term itself, between 2014 and 2019, he met Chinese leader Xi Jinping 18 times.

All that was undone by Galwan; between 2019 and 2022, the two have barely spoken to each other. At Samarkhand in October, the two stood next to each other but did not exchange a word. At the November G20 meeting in Bali, stilted pleasantries were exchanged, but the two did not meet separately as they did with other G20 leaders.

On his visit to China, PM Modi proclaimed a personal bond with the Chinese leader and described the relationship as ‘Plus One’. Given all this, the Indian government’s inability to summon the Chinese envoy and serve a démarche on the most recent incident— as India does ever so often with the Pakistani envoy—shows weakness, and makes a mockery of the ruling party’s conceit about representing a muscular nationalism.

A lot more is at stake, though, than the government’s or the ruling party’s or Modi’s image. The Chinese build-up on the eastern border is worrying, to say the least. India’s attempts to match the build-up is also a diversion of resources from other theatres of conflict. The government appears unable to impose an economic cost on China. The trade gap between the two countries has ballooned and India continues to import from China four times more than it exports. In 2021-22, the trade deficit stood at $73.3 billion, which is more than India’s entire defence expenditure.

As many as 174 Chinese companies are said to have registered in India and no fewer than 3,560 Indian companies have Chinese directors on their boards. Decoupling from China is clearly difficult and, disconcertingly, China has been unrelenting on the border question despite 25 meetings on ‘consultation and coordination’. It has conceded nothing, has forced India to create more buffer zones on the border on Indian territory, where Indian troops can no longer patrol. China has also made no secret of its perception of India as an inferior power and competitor.

India’s half-hearted—some say risk-averse and defensive—response in moving closer to the United States and participating in joint military exercises in the Indian Ocean and on borders with China have drawn sharp reactions from Beijing. India’s meek attempts at pointing out that China’s PLA and the Indian military too had participated in joint military exercises with Russia have cut no ice with the Chinese. No wonder the government is busy jousting with the Opposition.

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