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Indian summer promised

What messages did Modi bring on his trip to China?

Indian Prime Minister Modi visits the Museum of Qin Terracotta Warriors and Horses, in Xian

Outflanked by Chinese troops?

In 629 a monk named Xuan Zang became so frustrated by the contradictions he was finding in Chinese Buddhism that he decided to embark on an arduous pilgrimage to the religion’s birthplace, India.

From Xi’an he travelled through central Asia including the modern day Afghanistan, and criss-crossed the Indian subcontinent until he reached the temple of Kanchipuram. Xuan Zang returned to China 19 years later. He wrote down his experiences in a book named Great Tang Records on the Western Regions and for centuries it was this tome that provided the basis for the Chinese understanding of India.

So when Narendra Modi arrived on his first visit to China as Indian prime minister last week he was keen to reference the monk who was essentially his country’s first brand ambassador. Xuan popped up in Modi’s speech at Tsinghua University, his address to business leaders in Shanghai and perhaps most importantly it emerged that he will be the subject of the first ever co-production between Bollywood and the state-owned China Film Corporation. (Two other co-productions are due for release too, including Kung-fu Yoga, starring Jackie Chan.)

“I strongly believe that this century belongs to Asia. And Buddhism will be a further unifying and catalysing force among the Asian countries,” Modi said in Shanghai.

But even as he stressed the cultural and historic ties that bind the two Asian giants, Modi tried to drum home that the business environment had now changed in his country – and that India was looking to Chinese firms to develop its railways, road and telecom systems.

Indeed throughout the three-day trip to Xi’an, Beijing and Shanghai, Modi sought to project himself and his country as open, confident and modern. Prior to arriving Modi opened a weibo account which garnered 150,000 followers in a week; and in Beijing he posted a selfie of himself and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.

Modi also used the trip to shake up the dialogue on the issues that stand in the way of India and China developing a closer relationship. At Tsinghua he admitted that neither country knows precisely where the “Line of Actual Control” is along their disputed border in the Himalayan region. He called for both sides to settle the territorial dispute in a manner that “transforms our relationship and does not cause new disruptions”.

He said he had also raised the issue of other “irritants” such as the damming of trans-border rivers, the massive trade deficit which is now $48 billion in China’s favour, and Beijing’s chummy relationship with Indian’s main rival Pakistan.

“We must ensure that our relationships with other countries do not become a source of concern for each other. And, wherever possible and feasible, we should work together, as we did in responding to the earthquake in Nepal,” he said (mind you, this statement doesn’t ring entirely true, since it plays down some of the competition that emerged between the two giants as to which was helping Kathmandu more, see WiC280).

In Shanghai, Modi witnessed the signing of Sino-Indian business deals worth more than $22 billion. (Though Indian media has been quick to point out that China has also pledged $46 billion of infrastructure investment in Pakistan.)

“This is a historic opportunity for Chinese companies. We have committed ourselves to creating and improving the business environment. I can assure you that once you decide to be in India, we are confident to make you more and more comfortable,” he said.

His words appealed to Chinese entrepreneurs, many of whom have long wanted to break into the only economy that rivals theirs in terms of population, and one that is now growing faster than their own.

The Chinese media hailed Modi’s trip as a success, calling it an historical moment in Sino-Indian ties. “It is a super visit made in the spirit of hope,” the People’s Daily rhapsodised.

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