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The Big Story: Cross-border tango

Why an ‘informal summit’?

India proposed the first of these “informal summits” last year, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi traveling to Wuhan in central China. The informality came partly from the fact that, far from expecting a huge stride forward in relations, the two nuclear-armed Asian neighbours were seeking to stabilise ties after some tense moments between the two militaries in Doklam, on the India-Bhutan-China border.

This was the reciprocal visit. Reports suggest India initially proposed Varanasi, Modi’s Parliamentary constituency, but the Chinese claimed that President Xi Jinping’s plane was too large to land at the airport. (That the Japanese President had also visited there may have had something to do with it also). Eventually, Mamallapuram – known to many as Mahabalipuram – was picked. (On Twitter, Tamilians, of course, trended “Go Back Modi” in Mandarin.)

What was on the table?

While Wuhan was meant to be a return to “normality” in ties, the narrative was a lot less clear this time around. The defining global question is the US-China trade war, but India does not fit neatly into either side. Modi visited America just a few weeks ago but came away without even a limited trade deal.

India’s relations with China are much more economic – and defensive. India is a huge market for Chinese goods, which means that it also maintains a large trade deficit and frequently sees disparate (non-government) efforts to stop buying made-in-China products. New Delhi believes Beijing has used the global trade architecture to its benefit, without giving India access to China’s own market, in generic drugs for example. Addressing this was one big question.

India is also one of the few countries that has made a point to not participate in China’s global Belt and Road Initiative, which New Delhi has suggested is a colonial project. Still, there is plenty of Chinese investment in India and, considering that Beijing has been shut out of the US, it is hoping its telecom giant Huawei can make a play for India.

The big question is the border. India doesn’t have a defined border with China, and the hope has been that two powerful leaders with strong mandates like Modi and Xi have the best shot at resolving a dispute that dates back to the very founding of the republics. This is compounded by Chinese support for Pakistan, and its occasionally more strident comments on Kashmir.

University of Hong Kong Visiting Fellow Ananth Krishnan has a useful thread here collecting links that previewed the summit.

The optics

Unlike ahead of Wuhan, when a series of announcements ramped up to the informal summit, Beijing did not even confirm that Xi would be coming until two days before the event itself. Once he was in Chennai, though, the spectacle got going – beginning with school students rather disconcertingly wearing Xi masks.

The two leaders visited the magnificent monuments at Mamallapuram, with Modi turning up in a Tamil veshti and sharing a drink of coconut water by a temple. The two also shared a meal with the meat-laden menu that sounded scrumptious.

Just in case you didn’t get a full idea of how much of a spectacle this was, the government put together a handy video to drive home the point.

What actually came of it

As foreign policy commentator Brahma Chellaney put it, “The Indian media has given more details on the sumptuous dishes served to Xi at the Modi-hosted dinner or on his signature limousine, ‘Hongqi’ than on what the much-hyped summit achieved. One can’t blame the media, though: The summit was rich in symbolism and low on substance.”

After six hours of discussion, the biggest outcome was the setting up of a high-level mechanism to discuss sticking points on trade and the deficit, led by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on the Indian side. There isn’t much else to speak of: mentions were made of the border dispute, India’s concerns about the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership – a multi-lateral trade deal currently being negotiated – and developments in the region.

Both sides insisted that Kashmir did not come up, but that Xi regardless updated Modi on his meetings with Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan last week. Finally the two decided to declare 2020 the year of India-China people-to-people connections, to commemorate the 70th year of India-China relations (since the two become modern nations).

Where do things stand?

India has always had a difficult foreign policy challenge in handling the US and China, not least because the latter is right next door. The difficulty level has been even higher for Modi, because of global tensions between these two powers. Although all has not been smooth with either side, under Modi, India has also managed to keep things steady, rather than picking sides.

From one angle then, India’s ability to keep up relations – and Modi’s preference for spectacle in foreign policy – has been helpful.

But, as C Raja Mohan points out, India needs to recognise that it simply is not on the same plane as China. Where there was some hope that the two Asian neighbours would grow together, China has moved far ahead on almost every indicator, while India’s sluggish economy at the moment means parity is, for now, an impossible dream. No wonder the biggest note from the trip may have actually been China’s engagement with Nepal after the India visit.

Still, the two countries can always share amazing items with the faces of each other’s leaders on them:.


The government is slowly opening up communication lines in Kashmir, more than 70 days after the lockdown began. Despite claiming everything has been fine all along, the state put out front-page ads asking people to act as if things are normal.

India got its first delivery of the controversial Rafale fighter jets from France. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh “collected” the plane and carried out a ceremonial pooja, though the aircraft will not make it to India for another two years.

Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat’s annual Vijaydashami speech was more defensive of the government than usual. Bhagwat also said that the word “lynching” should not be imposed on India.

The Union government did not give Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal permission to travel for a conference in Denmark. The Centre claimed that it was simply upholding Kejriwal’s stature, since the conference was of mayor-level representatives, but few believe this explanation.

The Centre has put together a new panel to look into raising revenues from the Goods and Services Tax. The tax reform was supposed to boost the economy but has been a drag instead, and now the government might raise tax rates on the lowest slab.

Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao is not backing down. Nine days after tens of thousands of transport department employees in the state began a strike, Rao has refused to give in to demands and insists anyone refusing to work will be fired.

There is no Election Watch for Haryana or Maharashtra this week because, even though voting is a week away, the results almost seem like a foregone conclusion. More on this next week, though you can always read about dysfunction in the Congress party until then

Last week on Scroll.in

Reports and Op-Eds

Who does BJP President Amit Shah rely on within the party? The Print’s Shankar Arnimesh puts together a list of Shah’s most-trusted lieutenants. Earlier this year, the Political Fix looked at how Amit Shah has become almost as prominent as Modi following the election results.

You should read this New Yorker interview of Amartya Sen, one of India’s most important economists and thinkers. Isaac Chotiner speaks to the 83-year-old about his past and what he makes of today’s India.

Writer Amitav Ghosh put together this Twitter thread on Nepal’s role in India-China-British relations. This came in response to Indian fears that Chinese outreach to Nepal – President Xi Jinping went to Kathmandu after his Indian visit – would imperil India’s influence over its neighbour.

Economist Raghuram Rajan gave two lectures this week, both of which can be watched online here and here. They are worthwhile not just for Rajan’s insightful comments but because they also include comments by eminent fellow economists, Abhiijit Bannerjee and Arvind Subramanian (who admitted that the corporate tax cuts might have happened earlier if not for the “Suit-Boot ki Sarkar” jibe).

Brookings South Asia Director Tanvi Madan posted a Twitter thread in response to a piece saying India is losing the PR battle to Pakistan. Her simple point: India’s global image is built on being a liberal democracy, so criticism for suspending democracy and civil liberties as in Kashmir should not be unexpected.

India has yet to pass a personal data protection law, but even after it does, the process will only have just begun. Malavika Raghavan and Srikara Prasad write on BloombergQuint about what will need to be done after the long-awaited law is in place.

Can’t make this up

Until a few month ago, the BJP-led government was insisting that there was nothing wrong with the Indian economy and that everything was going superbly and that there is no unemployment and that anyone who says otherwise is an anti-national who deserves to go to Pakistan etc etc. Fortunately, the Finance Minister has got the message that – in the face of a very clear slowdown, this is not a good line to take. But not everyone got the memo.

Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad last week offered proof of no slowdown: the fact that three movies made Rs 120 crore in a single day. He later attempted to retract this statement, with another confusing one, but the damage was done: We now have a Bollywood index instead of official unemployment figures.

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