With less than a week to go before the second informal summit between President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, neither side has officially confirmed details about their sessions or itinerary. All preparations, of course, are in full swing and media are reporting some details of how the two leaders will be traveling to the destination.
As early as May, India’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that India would be hosting President Xi for his second informal summit with Modi in the prime minister’s constituency, Varanasi, in October. In June, Modi formally extended an invitation to Xi at the Bishkek summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and soon the media reported October 11-13 as the dates of the Chinese president’s visit to India. But then the venue was reportedly moved from Varanasi to Mamallapuram, near Chennai in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. No reasons were officially given for this change of venue, and since then officials have been economical with any details on this event.
Their first informal in the Chinese city of Wuhan in April last year saw the two leaders having six intense sessions in 24 hours. This included an unprecedented showcasing of their camaraderie and bonhomie in a long walk in a park followed by a shared boat ride on the city’s East Lake. No doubt detailed preparations are being made for something similar to take place next week, at least in terms of optics. But will their second informal summit be as eventful as their first one?
The Wuhan summit achieved two breakthrough agreements: One, the two leaders provided a strategic direction to their forces to ensure peace and tranquility on their disputed borders; and the second was President Xi’s 2+1 model. This model was an innovative offer to get India to join China’s infrastructure building across Asia. India, which has been reluctant to participate in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, was offered to be treated on an equal footing to launch third-country projects. The first instance of this saw China and India providing joint training to Afghan diplomats in August last year.
Give the vision and frame of informal summits, the two leaders are not expected to follow any agenda or timelines or make any formal statements at a press conference. The very nature of informal summits implies sharing notes and seeking and giving clarifications to build trust and undertake joint initiatives. So the outcomes of their first summit need not be replicated this time, but it may still provide positive results.
It is also important to underline how the Wuhan summit followed an unprecedented 10-week-long standoff on the border, which had seen segments on both sides using extremely harsh language. This second summit is not guided by a similar backdrop, though there have been a series of other irritants that may impact their interactions. These will surely take much of their time and energy as they explain to each other deeper connotations of their respective positions on these multiple issues.
For example, after the start of India’s reorganization of Jammu and Kashmir in August, September saw Indian and Chinese troops coming to blows north of Pangong Lake in Ladakh. This was followed by Modi’s US visit showcasing his unique bonhomie with President Donald Trump, who otherwise has few friends among world leaders. Now in October, as this summit takes place in Mamallapuram, India is holding a three-week high-altitude military exercise about a hundred kilometers from the China-India Line of Actual Control in Arunachal Pradesh in the eastern sector of their border.
To complicate things further, speeches by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and especially Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan at the UN General Assembly last month did not provide any comfort to their Indian interlocutors. Now on the eve of his visit to India, Xi will be hosting Khan in Beijing, which will reinforce India’s impressions about China’s compulsions to court Islamabad, and its outcome will be amplified in media headlines, at least in Pakistan, at the same time as Modi is welcoming Xi on Indian soil.
This is where the focus on optics is expected to help India ensure synergies are not allowed to be dissipated by momentary irritants for these two ancient civilizations. The summit in this case will be of enormous value in changing the framing of China-India relations and their role in building a shared future of humankind, roughly one-third of which lives in these two nations. Also, in terms of space and time, China and India have had interactions for millennia, which is the frame that will be highlighted at their Mamallapuram summit.
Mamallapuram was a flourishing seaport during 6th and 7th centuries under Pallava kings who had established cultural, commercial, defense and above all trade ties with much of Southeast Asia but especially with China. In AD 527, Bodhidharma, the third son of a Pallava king, reached China and became the 28th Patriarch of Buddhism. Historian K A Nilakanta writes about Bodhidharma becoming an icon of Chinese civilization.
In AD 642, writes archeologist S Santhalingam, the famous Chinese scholar Hieun Tsang visited Kancheepuram, the capital of the Pallavas, and the two sides are believed to have exchanged embassies. Consequently, Tang Dynasty Chinese appointed the third king of the Pallavas, Raja Simhan II or Narasimbhavan, as their general for South China and presented an order to this effect written on fine silk to the king’s court.
The Chalukya dynasty that replaced the Pallavas shifted their focus to ports of Nagapattinam and Tanjor, which saw the decline of Mamallapuram.
The run-up to this second China-India informal summit may seem to have vacillated, yet the optics will see the two leaders walking around the city’s ancient monuments ruminating about their place in the evolution of these two civilizations. And, given the repeated demonstrations of their determination to make their best contributions toward building the shared future of humankind, this environment and drive may fling upon us some surprise once again, and these decisive, powerful, ambitious leaders of two rapidly emerging nations may be able to deliver some outcome that is not yet in sight.