Narendra Modi, Xi Jinping talk trade and terror amid display of bonhomie

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping during their informal summit in Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu, on Friday. Photo: PTI
On the first day of their informal summit in the historical port town of Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday discussed India’s trade deficit with China and the need to enhance bilateral trade, both by volume and value. They also discussed the common challenge of radicalisation and terrorism that the two countries face. 

In the wake of recent developments over the Kashmir issue, there were concerns if the two leaders would be able to rekindle the “Wuhan spirit”, a reference to their first informal summit in China in April 2018 that had helped the two Asian neighbours overcome the trust deficit of the 73-day Doklam military standoff.

Briefing the media late Friday evening, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale stressed that Modi and Xi spent “quality time” with each other. 

Officials highlighted that the two leaders, according to the original itinerary, were supposed to spend six hours over the course of the two-day summit, but spent nearly five hours on the first day itself. The Chinese president landed in Chennai Friday afternoon and then proceeded to the port city of Mamallapuram, some 50 km away. 

New Delhi hoped the Modi-Xi handshake, as they took a tour of the over 1,000-year-old rock-cut structures at the historical city in the evening, and a one-on-one dinner that stretched for 150 minutes, over an hour beyond schedule, would help break the ice on recent tensions post August 5 over Kashmir. 

The Foreign Secretary said Modi and Xi’s one-on-one discussions, first while touring the monuments, and later at the dinner, were evidence of their good “personal rapport” built over their two informal summits, first in Wuhan and now, and 17 other meetings. He said their respective delegations were not present at the time of the dinner.

If New Delhi hopes to convince Beijing to see the Kashmir issue from India’s perspective, China, on the other hand, wants greater access of its products into India, especially now in the context of its tension with the US on trade.

Gokhale said the two leaders, during their tour of the rock cut monuments, exchanged notes about the trading links between southern India and southern part of China, and the need to enhance this aspect of India-China bilateral relationship. 

At the dinner, the foreign secretary said the two leaders spoke of their respective national visions and priorities of their governments, with the PM speaking of his renewed mandate for economic development. Xi said he looked forward to working closely with the PM over the next 4.5 years, Gokhale said. The Chinese president said he would be keen to engage on all issues for the rest of the PM’s current term.

There was no confirmation if the Kashmir issue came up for discussion. The Foreign Secretary said the two are scheduled to hold one-on-one discussions on Saturday, where they are likely to deliberate on international and regional issues.  

Developments preceding the summit have not been altogether conducive. Beijing hosted Pakistan PM Imran Khan, his third visit to China since August, just before Xi left for India. The Chinese President told Khan that Beijing was “paying close attention to the current situation in Jammu and Kashmir” and “the facts are clear”. China riled India further as it said the two neighbours must resolve the dispute based on the UN Charter, relevant UN Security Council resolutions and bilateral agreements.

New Delhi responded sharply stating J&K is an integral part of India, and it was “not for other countries to comment on the internal affairs of India.” What is more, Xi is slated to visit Nepal after concluding his India visit on Saturday evening.

Sources said the two sides are also likely to issue separate statements following the conclusion of the discussions on Saturday. Apart from trade, the need for confidence-building measures on the border is on the agenda.

Trade ministers of Asean countries and their six trading partners, including China and India, are currently discussing the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) free-trade agreement in Bangkok.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-affiliated Swadeshi Jagran Manch announced protests against India signing RCEP, specifically cautioning how dumping of cheap Chinese goods has forced most domestic industries to shut down.

“In such a case, the commitment of zero import duty on 80 per cent of Chinese products in the RCEP is beyond comprehension. This will not only destroy our remaining industries, but will also hurt our workers’ jobs and ‘Make-in-India’ will remain only a dream,” the Manch said.

In the evening, the two leaders toured the historical sites. Modi, in a veshti, and Xi in a white shirt and black trousers, attended cultural performances and partook of local cuisine.

“The free flowing nature of the informal summit at the UNESCO World Heritage site will continue and deepen contacts at the highest level and guide the future trajectory of India-China relationship,” Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Raveesh Kumar tweeted.

Modi arrived in Chennai at 11am on Friday morning, took a helicopter to East Coast Road and drove to Taj Fisherman Cove, the venue of the summit. “I am happy to be in the great land of Tamil Nadu, known for its wonderful culture and hospitality. It is gladdening that Tamil Nadu will host President Xi Jinping. May this Informal Summit further strengthen ties between India and China,” the PM tweeted.

The Boeing 747-Air China, carrying Chinese President along with a 90-member delegation, landed at Chennai Airport at 2 pm. The delegation comprises senior members of the Communist Party of China, foreign minister Wang Yi and others.

After a brief stopover, the Chinese President drove to Mamallapuram, 56 km from Chennai. Normal traffic was stopped in the IT corridor through which he travelled. Educational institutions and shops and other commercial establishments were closed for the day.

Xi drove in a Hongqi, a Chinese luxury car 18 feet long, 6.5 feet wide and 5 feet tall, which weighs 3,152 kg. Hongqi literally means “red flag”. He arrived at Mamallapuram at 5 pm. and Prime Minister Modi received him and shook hands in front of the Arjuna's Penance, a monolithic monument in the historic location.

Modi, who tweeted in Chinese and Tamil too, appeared in traditional Tamilian dress of white dhoti, white shirt and an angavasthram.

He gave a personal tour to Xi for nearly an hour, as the Chinese president had of the Hubei provincial museum during the Wuhan summit. Both the leaders started from Arjuna Penance where they shook hands, Krishnan's Butter Ball 20feet rock and 250 tonne weight where they raised their clasped hands, with Modi explaining the history and mythology of the monuments.

Both the leaders held informal talks on one-on-one without agenda, said officials. After the meet, for 30 minutes they witnessed cultural programme before heading to a private dinner near on the shores of Mamallapuram.

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