India’s burgeoning trade deficit with China and a decades-long border dispute were the focus of a 90-minute meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday amid signs of warming ties between the two Asian giants.
The discussion at the Shaanxi state guest house in the ancient city of Xian was “substantive” and held in a “comfortable’’ atmosphere with both leaders building on the chemistry that started during their last meeting in September, said foreign secretary S Jaishankar.
The PM opened his three-day tour of China, his first after coming to power, with a traditional Chinese welcome at the airport, a rare touch of personal diplomacy by Xi, underscoring his intention to build a strong personal relationship with Modi. This is also the first time the President has hosted a visiting foreign leader outside Beijing.
Attempting to put their relationship on a more personal footing, Xi met his visitor in Xian, the capital of Shaanxi province, telling him it was “the first time I have treated a foreign leader in my hometown”, China’s official news agency Xinhua said.
Modi, who was beginning a three-day visit, said it was “an honour to 125 crore (1.25 billion) Indians whom I am representing as Prime Minister”. The choice of venue was seen as reciprocation after Modi hosted Xi in his home state of Gujarat last year.
Jaishankar said the focus of the meeting was on increasing “mutual trust” and convergence between the two countries, who are attempting to come out of a relationship often fraught with mistrust and focus on boosting bilateral trade.
But the disputed boundary and trans-border water issues also made an appearance in the discussions amid Indian concerns about a growing bonhomie between China and Pakistan and increasing forays by Beijing in the Indian Ocean.
Ties between the world’s two most populous countries have long been strained over a Himalayan border dispute that saw the two nations fight a brief, bloody war in 1962.
“Then terrorism naturally came up because of today’s incident in Kabul…there was a reference to that and reference to the attack in Karachi and the need to strengthen counter-terrorism cooperation between India and China,” Jaishankar told reporters.
Officials have said investment deals and trade agreements worth $10 billion are planned during the visit and the two leaders spent some time on how to improve investment climate and finding ways to work together.
The issues of the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism, United Nations Security Council reforms and India’s Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG) membership were also discussed.
“Discussions were held on the challenges of reform and President Xi spoke about the ‘miracle of Gujarat’ under PM and the fact that he was trying to do that at the national level,” the foreign secretary said. The leaders also discussed the situation in Nepal and how both nations responded to the recent earthquakes.
Jaishankar said the two also discussed India’s attempt to join China as a permanent member of the United Nations’ elite Security Council, which Beijing has avoided directly endorsing.
Both are members of the BRICS grouping of major emerging economies, but are jockeying for influence in Asia. Beijing has vowed to pour investment into India’s arch-rival Pakistan, as it rolls out plans to boost infrastructure across Asia which seem to mostly bypass India.
Later, Modi and Xi visited the Wild Goose Pagoda, a Buddhist place of worship built during the 7th century AD. One of the pagoda’s many functions was to hold sutras and figurines of the Buddha that were brought to China from India by Buddhist traveller Hieun Tsang.
Indian officials said Modi was accorded a warm welcome with foreign ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup tweeting photos of surging crowds on the streets. “Am very glad to see the enthusiasm among the people of China. People-to-people ties are always special,” the PM’s Twitter handle posted.
Recent overtures by Beijing to Islamabad, including a $46 billion investment in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, has irked New Delhi but the two nations are now attempting to put economics at the forefront of their relationship, with the prospect of Chinese investment in India and greater market access for Indian goods and services that may help narrow a $48-billion trade deficit.
Earlier in the day, Modi began his official engagements with a visit to the famous Terracotta Warriors Museum, while the Indian media contingent accompanying him was stranded outside.
Modi spent an hour going around the museum in Xi’an which has a large collection of sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China.
In the visitors’ book, Modi wrote that he was “deeply impressed” by the extraordinary care with which the museum has been preserved.
Dozens of reporters and camerapersons who followed him from New Delhi were not allowed inside the museum by Chinese officials.
Journalists complained that they were rudely told by officials that they did not have the requisite permission to follow he Prime Minister inside the museum.
The interpreter accompanying them said there was “total lack of communication” between the ministry of external affairs(MEA), the Indian embassy and the Chinese officials.
Indian officials , however, put the blame entirely on the Chinese side and said they would take it up with Beijing.