Xi, Modi push for better ties at meeting

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a welcoming ceremony in Wuhan yesterday.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a welcoming ceremony in Wuhan yesterday. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Summit will allow two leaders to have a freer exchange: Analysts

Chinese President Xi Jinping yesterday told visiting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that he hoped their meeting will start a new chapter in bilateral ties, at their first "unofficial" summit meant to reset fraught relations.

Mr Modi said the meeting was of "historic significance" and that maintaining high-level exchanges and strategic communication was "beneficial to increasing understanding and deepening cooperation", according to a China Central Television news bulletin.

The two leaders began their two-day meeting yesterday afternoon with a tour of a museum in the central city of Wuhan, away from the formalities of capital Beijing.

The surprise meeting comes just before the two leaders are due to meet in June at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation conference in Qingdao. That they are holding back-to-back meetings and having an informal summit without a detailed agenda or large delegations shows the urgency and importance they attach to bettering ties after last year's chill, analysts said.

Bilateral ties took a serious dip during a 74-day stand-off between the two countries' militaries in an area high in the Himalayas - Doklam to India and Donglang to the Chinese - that is claimed by both Bhutan and China.

It deepened strategic mistrust between the two giant neighbours which already have simmering disputes along their long, 4,000km common border.

India is also unhappy over the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor - part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of China to build infrastructure in developing countries - because it runs through the Pakistan-administered Kashmir that India claims.

As a China Daily op-ed yesterday pointed out, some in India "interpret India's failure to gain accession to the United Nations Security Council and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (both of which China is a member of) and Beijing's pursuit of the BRI with other South Asian countries as China's steps to gain geostrategic advantage over India and thwart its efforts to become a 'leading power'".

The op-ed added that China "will be watching India's role in the 'Indo-Pacific' strategy initiated by the United States". The term "Indo-Pacific strategy" is used to describe an emerging alliance between the US, India, Australia and Japan that is seen in some quarters as a means to contain China.

"The Wuhan meeting provides a much-needed opportunity for strategic communication at the top level," the op-ed said.

The Times of India newspaper noted that for China, trade with India was a priority.

As China parries with the US over trade, "it is imperative for the dragon country that it discovers new trade prospects to ward off the hostile winds of protectionism blowing from the west", it said, adding: "The largest share of India's imports (about 17 per cent) comes from Chinese shores."

Chinese analysts said the informality of the meeting between Mr Xi and Mr Modi allows for a freer and broader exchange and more meaningful consensus.

Yesterday evening, they met for a second time, before having dinner together.

Today, they will take a walk around the East Lake Guesthouse and a boat ride on the East Lake. They will have lunch before they part ways. While the Chinese have tried to create a relaxed atmosphere for the talks, pressure came from back home for Mr Modi.

In a tweet, Mr Rahul Gandhi, leader of the opposition Congress party, reminded Mr Modi that "India wants to hear you talk about these crucial issues" of Doklam and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 28, 2018, with the headline 'Xi, Modi push for better ties at meeting'. Print Edition | Subscribe