China and the World

A long road ahead

Xi and Modi sidestep tensions in informal talks


They met in Chennai

China and India both boast civilisations that can trace their origins back thousands of years. Yet even in that context, a century seems like rather a long time to sort out strained relations between the two nations.

That was the timeframe President Xi Jinping appeared to suggest for improving ties, during his informal summit with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi late last week.

“We must hold the rudder and choose the course of China-India relations, map out a hundred-year plan for relations from a strategic and long-term perspective and work together to realise the great rejuvenation of our two great civilisations,” he told his counterpart at the close of the meeting near the southern Indian city of Chennai on October 11.

Of course, Xi’s 100-year comment was intended as a declaration of sincerity and as a nod to the long histories of both nations – something both sides have cited as a shared feature and basis for better ties.

On the other hand, the grandiose line fell flat with plenty of people in Delhi, who were already annoyed that Beijing had only confirmed Xi’s visit two days before he arrived.

“A 100-year plan? More like a 48-hour plan!” remarked one veteran journalist.

Xi’s foreign trips are normally confirmed about five days in advance and even his recent trip to North Korea was announced 72 hours ahead of departure. The reason for the shorter timeframe this time – non-Chinese media speculated – was Delhi’s decision in August to split the Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir and revoke the autonomy it had enjoyed for decades. China lays claim to part of Ladakh – one of the two new entities created by the split. In addition Pakistan, traditionally a Chinese ally, claims the Kashmir part of Jammu and Kashmir.

China’s foreign ministry denounced India’s “unilateral” decision to change the status quo in the disputed region, saying the move undermined China’s “territorial sovereignty”.

A round of Indian military exercises in Arunachal Pradesh – another disputed region at the eastern end of India and China’s shared border – won’t have helped either. China claims a large chunk of Arunachal as ‘South Tibet’ and the two nations went to war over the territory in 1962.

In the end, any mention of these disgreements was avoided at the Chennai summit, where the two leaders tried instead to build a personal rapport. They toured three temple complexes, posed for photos next to a huge boulder known as the Krishna Butterball and feasted on south Indian food. The idea was to replicate the friendlier mood of the first informal summit between the two in the Chinese city of Wuhan 18 months ago.

According to India’s foreign minister Vijay Gokahale – a former ambassador to Beijing – the two men spent six hours in one-on-one talks, while their respective teams focused on less intractable issues such as lowering India’s $53 billion trade deficit with China.

Delhi’s relationship with Beijing has also been complicated in recent years by the building of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor – a $62 billion package of power plants and transport projects in Pakistan. Some of the activity runs through areas of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir – land that India also claims.

In addition the Indians worry about Beijing’s Belt and Road overtures to other countries in the region, including Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

Xi’s summit with Modi was wedged between a visit to Beijing by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and Xi’s first trip to Nepal.

During Xi’s visit to Nepal – the first by a Chinese leader in 23 years – the idea of a cross-Himalayan railway connecting Lhasa to Kathmandu came up for discussion once again. But more of the headlines came from his ferocious warning that anyone trying to “split” China would end up with “crushed bodies and shattered bones”.

This remark was open to various interpretations, one of which related to Tibet: Nepal is home to 20,000 Tibetan exiles who fled across the border in response to what they claim as persecution.

In sum, it is hard to say if the Xi-Modi summit was a success or not – though Indian media was clearly instructed to report the two leaders have a ‘personal rapport’.

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