But couched beneath the scenes of Modi playing the gracious host and hosting Xi in Mamallapuram is a very subtle message— of India being as old a civilisation as China which Beijing needs to be mindful of while dealing with India. And given president Xi’s interest in history, it is unlikely Modi’s signal would have missed its target.
On Friday, Modi took Xi around the UNESCO World Heritage Site along the Coromandel coast, famous for its stone carvings and rock cut temples dating back to the Pallava era. The town has drawn its fair share of domestic and international tourists over the years. That Tamil Nadu has had trade and cultural links with Fujian province, where Xi once served as governor helped give an immediate context to the choice of Mamallapuram as the venue for the second informal summit between the leaders of the two Asian giants.
Quanzhou, a port city in Fujian, has recently unearthed evidence of trade links with southern coastal India that existed almost 1,400 years ago.
“President Xi Jinping and the Prime Minister during that tour of the monuments (on Friday) spoke of the historical and trading links between the Southern part of India particularly between Tamil Nadu under the Pallava and Chola dynasties and the Eastern coast of China particularly Fujian province," foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale told reporters late Friday.
“They both referred to port city called Quanzhou in Fujian, where recently Tamil inscriptions and fragments of architecture reflecting a possible temple build by Tamil traders in the 12th century have been discovered. President Xi Jinping also said that he was aware of this. Both leaders have discussed how we can actually enhance knowledge in this aspect of our bilateral relationship," Gokhale said.
“There was a reference to Bodhi-Dharma who had left the shores of India from Tamil Nadu and went by sea and took Zen Buddhism to China and Japan," Gokhale said referring to a Buddhist monk who lived during the 5th or 6th century.
“The Prime Minister also explained the significance of the World Heritage Site. At Arjuna’s Penance, which is one of the national treasures that we have, Prime Minister explained the underlined philosophical ethos which was that man and nature live in harmony with each other," Gokhale said.
“Similarly when he took President Xi Jinping to the Ganesh Rath, he explained that this was a temple where 1300 years after its construction under the Pallava dynasty, it continues to be part of our living culture and our living civilization, worship takes place in this temple also today," Gokhale said. “India like China is a civilization with a long and continuous history," he added.
“Of course there is a message here," said Srikanth Kondapalli, a professor of Chinese Studies at the New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University.
“The message is that India too like China is an old civilisation. It is no pushover. India has a long history of retained resilience," he said.
“The message to the Chinese is also that Beijing was looking only at a portion of history", i.e. from 1947 onwards when India and Pakistan became independent countries," Kondapalli said pointing to the close cooperation between China and Pakistan that New Delhi sees as a detriment. “There is the message that India has been able to thrive in art, trade, culture, literature and economy since the ancient times," he said, adding this was with the full recognition on Modi’s part of the current asymmetries between India and China, including a trade deficit of $57 billion against India.
“There could also be a buttressing of India’s Act East policy", i.e. India’s efforts to forge stronger links with Southeast Asia, Kondapalli said. “I think there is also a message that India despite its sea faring tradition from ancient times has not been an aggressor," said Kondapalli. “Today, China is seen as aggressive by many countries in Southeast Asia because of its actions in the South China Sea," he said referring to China claiming most of the South China Sea as part of its territorial waters.
On the surface of it though, Modi’s choice of Mamallapuram is not surprising given that the prime minister has emphasised the need to showcase India and not just the political capital New Delhi to the outside world, particularly visiting heads of state and government.
And there are many precedents for this.
When India organised the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) Summit in 2016, the venue of the meeting was Goa on the Arabian Sea coast. The Heart of Asia conference on Afghanistan that drew delegates from more than 40 countries in December 2016 was organised in Amritsar.
Modi previously hosted president Xi in Ahmedabad in 2014 before starting the more formal leg of the visit in New Delhi. In 2017, Modi also played host to Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe in Ahmedabad. Abe’s entire programme was confined to Ahmedabad with no visit to New Delhi. Former French president Francois Hollande was received by Modi in Chandigarh before he visited New Delhi where he was the Republic Day chief guest. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was hosted in Bengaluru in 2017 after the official talks in New Delhi concluded.
There have also been instances of a venue being chosen to underline the connect that the visiting dignitary or his country has with the place of visit. Hollande’s visit to Chandigarh was used to recall that it was Swiss-French architect who designed the city.