New Delhi: A day after receiving Chinese President Xi Jinping in his home state of Gujarat with exceptional warmth and treating him to a lavish Gujarati repast, Prime Minister Narendra Modi sat his guest down in New Delhi on 18 September for some plain talk.
“If a small strand of hair gets into your eye, it’s impossible for you to drive," Modi told Xi in Hindi through a translator. “Similarly, even small incidents can affect a relationship," he said, referring to a Chinese incursion into Indian territory in the Ladakh region.
Later the same day, when Modi and Xi addressed the media, the Indian prime minister disclosed that he had discussed the six-decade-old border dispute with the Chinese president as well as the recent intrusions into Indian territory.
That Modi, 64, made it public in the presence of Xi, 61, that he had a frank discussion with him on the contentious matter over which the two countries went to war in 1962, was a departure from the established convention followed during previous visits by Chinese dignitaries to India.
“Xi and Modi are both stronger figures than their predecessors (Hu Jintao and Manmohan Singh). This could either mean that they see eye to eye, or that they rub each other up the wrong way," Rana Mitter, director at Oxford University’s China Centre, said in emailed comments.
It was clear there were differences to be bridged, but the handshake between the two leaders after the press conference seemed to reflect the cordiality of the day before and a sign of maturing relations between the world’s two most populous nations.
At the same time, the two countries set out a blueprint to strengthen economic and cultural relations—formally committing to a new beginning that has the potential to dramatically alter the status quo between the two countries and, consequently, change several global and regional strategic equations.
In an interview to CNN telecast on 21 September, Modi reflected on the theme.
When asked about China’s unpredictable behaviour with its neighbours on disputes in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, Modi said India could not close its “eyes to problems".
But he added: “We are now in a different era. We are not living in the 18th century. China is also a country with an ancient cultural heritage. Look at how it has focused on economic development. It’s hardly the sign of a country that wants to be isolated. It wants to stay connected. That is why we should have trust in China’s understanding and have faith that it would accept global laws and will play its role in cooperating and moving forward."
A joint statement issued on 19 September, at the end of Xi’s three-day visit committed the two Asian giants to a new partnership. It said Modi and Xi had “agreed to make this developmental partnership a core component of the Strategic and Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Prosperity".
The two sides “reaffirmed their commitment to consolidate the Strategic and Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Prosperity on the basis of the principle of mutual and equal security and mutual sensitivity for each other’s concerns and aspirations," the statement added later.
Modi had signalled his intent on 18 September, when he said stability and prosperity could be achieved by overcoming the trust deficit between the two countries. “We can give new direction and energy to the global economy," he said.
During Xi’s 17-19 September visit, both leaders seemed at ease with each other, with Modi personally taking Xi on a tour of Sabarmati Ashram, where India’s freedom icon Mahatma Gandhi lived between 1917 and 1930.
By going the extra mile and publicly hosting the Chinese president in Gujarat, Modi sought to deliberately inject warmth into the dialogue between the two countries that are home to one-third of the global population.
On his part, Xi Jinping described India-China relations as being at “a new starting point" and added that the two leaders had discussed “all aspects of the China-India relations".
Conventionally, relations between the two countries have veered between hostility and an uneasy coexistence. The relations between the two countries have been further strained by China’s proximity to Pakistan and repeated statements from both the US and India that the world’s largest economy saw the world’s largest democracy as an effective regional counter to the world’s most populous nation.
By committing to a cordial relationship, the two sides have laid the basis for rewriting these and other geostrategic relationships.
Responding to the unprecedented reception accorded to him, Xi seemed willing to acknowledge India’s concerns on trade and border issues while the two sides signed a dozen pacts, including two on upgradation of railway infrastructure and another that promised $20 billion of Chinese investments over five years.
A person close to the developments on the Indian side said the $20 billion in investments was agreed to during a visit by Indian commerce and industry minister Nirmala Sitharaman to Beijing earlier this month. The investment needs to be seen in the context of the around $400 million of investments that have flowed from China to India over the past 14 years.
“At a strategic level, both sides agreed to address and resolve issues, recognizing that there was a lot India and China could do together if these issues are resolved," said a government official familiar with the talks between Modi and Xi in Delhi.
Prime Minister Modi was keen to balance the $65 billion in annual trade between the two countries that is heavily tilted in China’s favour. Xi promised more access to India’s pharmaceutical, farming and fuel products as a counter.
Both sides also agreed to set up two industrial parks in India—one in Modi’s home state of Gujarat for power production and transmission equipment and another in Maharashtra for manufacturing auto components.
Both parks are part of the “Five-year Trade and Economic Development Plan" signed by Sitharaman and her Chinese counterpart, Gao Hucheng, in the presence of Modi and Xi.
Need for mutual trust
The Xi-Modi meeting was incrementally different from previous engagements between leaders of the two countries, said Srikanth Kondapalli, a professor of East Asian studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Modi, he added, has been able to get more out of China, although “one will have to wait and see how much things fructify", Kondapalli said.
In a first of sorts, Modi underlined India’s security concerns publicly in his closing statement. On previous occasions, senior Indian foreign ministry officials have briefed the press about the interactions and there have been no media statements, leave alone press conferences.
“We are both undergoing economic transformation on an unprecedented scale and speed. Therefore, a climate of mutual trust and confidence, respect for each other’s sensitivities and concerns, and peace and stability in our relations and along our borders, are essential for us to realize the enormous potential in our relations. If we achieve that, we can reinforce each other’s economic growth," Modi said before specifically referring to the India-China border dispute dating back to their brief but bitter war in 1962.
Addressing the joint media gathering, Modi said: “I raised our serious concern over repeated incidents along the border. We agreed that peace and tranquillity in the border region constitutes an essential foundation for mutual trust and confidence, and for realizing the full potential of our relationship. This is an important understanding, which should be observed diligently."
The Chinese President’s response to Modi’s address was measured, but not contradictory.
“The two sides agreed the leaders of the two countries should provide strategic depth to our relationship, strengthen relations at all levels and push forward our bilateral relations," Xi said, adding that he has invited Modi to visit China early next year.
On the issue of incursions along the border, Xi said: “Sometimes there might be certain incidents, but the two sides are fully capable of acting promptly to effectively manage the situation...
“What is important for China and India is to face the boundary question and seek a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable solution at an early date through peaceful and friendly consultations," Xi said.
China claims 90,000 sq. km of Indian territory in Arunachal Pradesh and occupies around 38,000 sq. km in Jammu and Kashmir. Also, under an agreement signed between Pakistan and China in March 1963, Pakistan illegally ceded 5,180 sq. km of Indian territory in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to China. India and China regularly accuse each other of incursions into the other’s territory, the latest being media reports of two face-offs in Kashmir over the past few days.
“While our border-related agreements and confidence-building measures have worked well, I also suggested that clarification of Line of Actual Control (LAC) would greatly contribute to our efforts to maintain peace and tranquillity, and requested President Xi to resume the stalled process of clarifying the LAC. We should also seek an early settlement of the boundary question," Modi said.
“Similarly, we discussed India’s concerns relating to China’s visa policy and trans-border rivers. I am confident their satisfactory resolution will take mutual trust to a new level," he said, referring to two other core concerns of India—China issuing stapled visas to people living in Arunachal Pradesh and diverting waters from rivers flowing from China into India.
Former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal said if this was Modi’s statement in public, “privately he would have said even more".
Kondapalli agreed “Modi had put forth his views more forcefully" than his predecessor, Manmohan Singh. “This can be attributed to the majority he has in Parliament", he said referring to Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) winning 282 seats in the Lok Sabha, the first time a single party had won a clear majority in 30 years, in the recent general election.
In a speech on Thursday, 18 September, Xi said China would support India becoming a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a regional security body that includes China and Russia, and also backed India’s aspiration to play a greater role at the United Nations, including on the Security Council.
“I wish to make it clear that China will be firmly committed to the path of peaceful development," he said at the event organized by the Indian Council of World Affairs in New Delhi.
President Pranab Mukherjee, in his speech at a banquet in honour of the Chinese president, said the two nations “now need to take it (bilateral relationship) to a level where our programmes and initiatives facilitate the realization of our common goals of progress and prosperity".
Kondapalli said China and India were sending out interesting signals to the world. The chemistry between the two men (Modi and Xi) was good and set the stage for a more personalized relationship over the next few years, he said.
“For the sake of stability, for the sake of economic relations...this bodes well," he said.