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On Friday, India had a surprise visitor as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi arrived in New Delhi. Till then, both India and China had declined to announce the visit, even as rumours swirled. Even the immediate run-up to the foreign minister’s landing was dramatic. On Tuesday, while in Pakistan, Wang backed the country’s position on the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir being a “freedom struggle”. To add to that, Wang then flew to Kabul to meet with Taliban leaders before then landing in Delhi.

If China put out its own optics, stringing India along as part of an overall South Asia tour (Wang flew to Nepal after India), Delhi did too, making sure the senior minister was not officially received at the airport, as well as leaking the claim to Indian newspapers that China had wanted an audience with Prime Minister Modi, which the Indians shot down.

If matters were limited to the abstruse world of diplomatic symbolism then that would have been fine. Except an elephant loomed in the room. In 2020, as India was hit hard by the chaos of Covid lockdowns, China initiated violent skirmishes on the border. In the two years since, while India has beefed up its defences to prevent further incidents, China still holds territory that was, till two years back, patrolled by Indian troops.

If the unresolved border situation wasn’t enough of a warning signal before the visit, even worse was to come in the Chinese statement post it. Beijing advised India to “take a long-term view”, explore “China-India cooperation” and “speak with one voice” at the BRICS summit in China later this year, when the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa are expected to meet.

Clearly, Beijing was trying to woo New Delhi, and ensure its participation at the BRICS summit. However, what was most significant was what the Chinese were not offering: a return to a border as it was before their armed aggression. In fact, Hu Shisheng, Beijing-based expert on India-China relations, talking to the Hindu, simply dismissed the idea of a pre-2020 status quo at all, claiming that from Beijing’s point of view, the status quo starts from 1959. As defence expert Sushant Singh bluntly puts it, “a demand for restoration of status quo ante, as of April 2020, is not even on the table”.

In this context, academic Happymon Jacob points out, Modi visiting China for the BRICS summit would mean that “India has accepted that its business as usual between them despite Chinese occupation of Indian territory”.

If the reversal of the border situation is not even on the table, why is India discussing matters with China at all?

The answer points to an uncomfortable truth about Indian power at the present moment. Not only was India unable to prevent Chinese aggression in 2020, it also does not have the military strength to reverse it. In the absence of that, China does not even think it necessary to discuss the matter, moving on to other issues that interest it.

And this asymmetry is not restricted to the Himalayas: writing in Politico, American academic Sameer Lalwani argues that even Indian naval power is “faltering”, giving Beijing influence in the Indian Ocean.

Why is India facing this crisis? Part of the reason can be ascribed to the Modi government which publicly underplayed the extent of Chinese aggression, wary that complaining about it would puncture its bellicose domestic positioning as the party that can best defend national security.

In fact, only a few days after 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a skirmish with the Chinese, Modi went on television to falsely claim that “no one has intruded and nor is anyone intruding, nor has any post been captured by someone”. As defence expert Brahma Chellaney points out, till today, India uses euphemisms such as “friction areas” for “captured areas”.

However, there are deeper reasons for the tough spot India finds itself in: its economy. China’s gross domestic product is more than five times larger than India’s even though both countries have similar populations. And given that India’s economic growth has slowed down over the past few years, this gap is widening.

The result: a significantly poorer India is simply unable to keep up with China when it comes to military modernisation. China, in fact, has even halved its army personnel, confident that cutting-edge technology can do the job instead. In contrast, much of India’s military budget is spent on paying salaries and pensions.

Worse, unlike China, India has no domestic arms industry – a situation so acute that New Delhi’s foreign policy options on the Russia-Ukraine war are being shaped by the simple fact that India procures a large proportion of its weapons from Moscow.

After the Chinese aggression in 2020 too, India was constrained economically, largely relying on token measures like app bans. In fact, imports to India from China have surged since the conflict. Given the fragile state of the Indian economy and the nascent stage of its domestic industry, clearly any trade bans or even curbs against China are untenable even against the backdrop of territorial aggression.

Given the sheer size of its population, India has a very large economy. But as an article co-authored by Arvind Subramanian, Modi’s former chief economic advisor, reminds us, India is better described as a “middling power”. India hosting Wang Yi even as the Chinese army blocks Indian patrols is a reminder that steady economic growth is an urgent requirement for India.

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