BEIJING (REUTERS, AFP) - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will tour a museum and have dinner with President Xi Jinping on Friday (April 27), the first day of an ice-breaking visit to China in which the giant neighbours will seek to re-set a troubled relationship.
Modi is only spending about 24 hours in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, just months after a dispute over a stretch of their high-altitude Himalayan border rekindled fears of war between the two Asian nations.
Modi will first greet Xi and then get a tour of ancient Chinese artefacts at the Hubei Provincial Museum, followed by what is scheduled to be a 40-minute meeting with Xi and then dinner, according to India’s foreign ministry.
On Saturday, the two are due to take a walk around their guesthouse and then an hour-long boat-trip, informal settings mostly without aides that both sides are hoping will lead to frank discussions.
“President Xi and I will exchange views on a range of issues of bilateral and global importance. We will discuss our respective visions and priorities for national development, particularly in the context of current and future international situation,” Modi said in a Twitter post.
Indian and Chinese officials have offered few other details of the summit.
The museum in Wuhan, an industrial and university town with no obvious connection to India, was closed ahead of Modi’s arrival. A red carpet leading up the stairs could be seen from the street and a plain clothes police office told a Reuters reporter to stop taking pictures.
A sign at the entrance said the museum was closed for four days due to “equipment maintenance”.
In a commentary on Friday, the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily said the cultures of both China and India set great store on the concept of harmony, and pointed out the same museum had in 2014 held a special exhibition on India.
“The friendly exchanges between China and India have again and again seen composed moving stories, creating a model for inter-cultural dialogue in the world,” it said.
On Tuesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Xi and Modi have "a good working relationship and personal friendship".
"The two sides agreed that an informal meeting would be a good idea so that the two leaders would make full and in-depth exchanges on major issues of common concern in a suitable atmosphere," Lu said.
The two nations’ differences are significant.
As well as disputes over stretches of a 3,500-km border, the Asian giants are bumping up against each other in the Indian Ocean and squabbling over Xi’s signature Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.
India signalled as recently as Tuesday its opposition to the grand trade and transport plan because one of its branches runs through Pakistani-administered Kashmir, which India claims.
For its part, China has been concerned about US efforts to draw India into a maritime “quad” of democracies, including Japan and Australia.
India and China went to war in 1962 over Arunachal Pradesh, with Chinese troops temporarily capturing part of the Himalayan territory.
The dispute remains unresolved, with India considering Arunachal Pradesh one of its northeastern states while China stakes claim to about 90,000 square kilometres of the area.
In February, Beijing lodged an angry protest with New Delhi over a trip by Modi to the state.
Last year, Indian and Chinese troops faced off on the Doklam plateau, an area high in the Himalayas claimed both by China and by India's ally Bhutan.
The dispute began in June when Chinese troops started building a road on the plateau and India deployed troops to stop the project.
A crisis was averted in August when the two nuclear-armed nations pulled back their troops.
"We have to step out of the shadows of the 1962 war," said Wang Dehua, a South and Central Asia expert at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.
"The meeting will focus on avoiding the unhappy events we saw in Doklam last year," Wang said.
Modi is expected to return to China in June for the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a security bloc led by Beijing and Moscow.
Indian analysts point to a pragmatic reason for Modi to want better relations with China: he faces national elections next year, and he would be better off with stable ties with the world's second-largest economy.
"I don't think he would like to go into an election with the kind of relationship, the low point it had reached over the last year," Pant said.
With China facing a potential tariff war with the United States, Beijing and New Delhi could find common ground on international trade, Pant said.
"It is one of the issues where India and China have worked together at the global stage in the past," he said.