Recently, China and India were engaged in a jagged exchange of words over Modi’s visit to South Tibet, a mountainous region under substantial dispute between the two Asian giants. Although China’s stance on the boundary issue is consistent and crystal-clear that it has never recognized the so-called “Arunachal Pradesh” and is firmly opposed to any Indian leaders’ presence there, it was Modi who has repeatedly touched the raw nerve.
Such exchange – though it has happened in the past during China’s Spring Festivals in February 2015 and February 2018 – is particularly noteworthy: Modi’s latest visit followed the informal leadership summit in Wuhan in April 2018 which was widely seen as the key effort from both sides to improve diplomatic ties and rebuild trust since the 73-day-long armed standoff in Doklam.
Such actions by Modi would inevitably affect the progress made by both sides, further complicating the boundary issue and exacerbating mutual suspicion.
Modi’s recent presence in South Tibet was largely driven by electoral considerations, aimed at mobilizing support for Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ahead of the general elections, which are due in India in April and May 2019 to constitute the 17th Lok Sabha.
There is a twin motivation behind his presence in the region: on the one hand, Modi wanted to push forward the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in South Tibet where it may help New Delhi assimilate local population and convert it demographically into a more “Indianized” one; on the other, Modi sought to pacify irritated and alienated local communities by introducing more developmental projects and pro-growth schemes. In addition, by sending out a strong signal that China’s fierce protests would not deter him from visiting the frontier region, Modi also sought to appeal to nationalistic voters before the election.
Following the passing of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in the Lok Sabha on January 8, South Tibet had been hit by waves of protests across the region. A large number of Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh have been sent into South Tibet since the 1950s, but have no citizenship. However, if the Bill is enacted, these refugees would likely get Indian citizenship, which poses a threat to the local community as their swelling population in the long run may well crowd out and eat up the indigenous population. For example, Hajong people – a Hindu group originally residing in former East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) which fled to India due to religious persecution – have been migrating to South Tibet since the 1960s, but their presence since then has been a constant source of conflicts.
It was against this backdrop that Modi trod on the soil of South Tibet. Signaling that his government gives a lot of importance to the region which has been neglected by previous governments, Modi sought to pacify annoyed locals by giving them a long list of gifts. The Indian prime minister laid the foundation stone of several developmental programs and inaugurated several large-scale infrastructure projects, including highway, railway, airport and power stations. However, in the face of local protests, the effectiveness of Modi’s economic package, delivered just a few months before the election, seemed very suspicious. Interestingly, because of the tremendous opposition against the Bill and the frustrating situation on the ground, BJP’s top local politician who was defending the bill changed his tune almost as soon as Modi left.
Clearly, Modi’s twin election trick, which comprised both nationalistic and developmental elements, was clearly at work during his visit to disputed South Tibet. However, sacrificing the painstakingly earned mutual trust and progress in Sino-Indian relations for the sake of ephemeral political benefits seems unwise.
Even though India and China have so far held 21 rounds of talks to resolve the border dispute, and Modi and President Xi have met at least four times in 2018 to bring bilateral ties back on a stable footing, the border issue remains the single-most sensitive topic between the two countries. While the dispute between China and India remains too large to be resolved altogether, both sides would better carefully manage it.