Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with Chinese President Xi Jinping Friday at the beginning of his informal two-day relation-building summit in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.
The meeting, widely interpreted as an attempt to reset relations and rebuild trust, follows an extended period of diplomatic estrangement between the two neighboring nuclear powers.
Though officials from both sides have stressed that the meeting has no stated goals or set agenda, an op-ed published Thursday in the state-owned China Daily suggested the two leaders would focus on a number of key issues, specifically global governance and shared international challenges.
“The common interests of China and India far outweigh their differences … Of course Xi and Modi will also address each other’s concerns, but they are not likely to indulge in strategic distrust and geopolitical competition,” the opinion piece said.
The summit comes after the two countries were involved in a tense 72-day military standoff last summer over the disputed border region of the India-China-Bhutan “trijunction.”
On Friday afternoon, Modi and Xi had a one-on-one meeting before touring the Hubei Provincial Museum in Wuhan, home to some of China’s oldest cultural relics.
Images posted by Indian Ministry of External Affairs Raveesh Kumar on social media showed Modi being welcomed to the museum with an elaborate Chinese cultural performance. “India and China’s cultural connect goes back many centuries,” Kumar said on his official Twitter feed.
Other pictures showed Xi accompanying Modi throughout the exhibition as the Indian leader played musical instruments and viewed the displays.
Busy schedule planned for summit
Joined by China’s foreign affairs heavyweights Yang Jiechi and State Councilor Wang Yi, Modi and Xi began a second round of talks at the East Lake guesthouse later in the evening.
According to a schedule released by the Indian Foreign Ministry, Xi and Modi have a total of six engagements planned over the two-day period.
On Saturday, they are expected to hold a second one-on-one meeting at a state guesthouse on the banks of the East Lake, followed by a boat ride.
Modi said on his official Twitter account, ahead of his departure, the meeting would provide the two leaders with an opportunity to exchange views on a range of issues of “bilateral and global importance.”
“We will also review the developments in India-China relations from a strategic and long-term perspective,” added Modi.
According to Indian media reports, a joint statement will not be issued following the visit.
Closer trade ties
Writing in the Hindustan Times on the eve of the summit, Chinese Ambassador to India, Luo Zhaohui, described the two countries as being at a “critical stage of economic development and modernization,” pointing out that economic and trade cooperation between the two nations has surged in recent years.
Between India and China, their collective population and economies comprise more than 2.6 billion people and 17.6% of the global economy.
China is India’s largest trading partner with a total of $84 billion in bilateral trade last year. But the economic relationship is dwarfed by the US-China trade volume, which stood almost $600 billion.
Referencing the rising threat of US protectionism, Luo stressed the importance of maintaining free and open cross-border trade. “With the current backlash against globalization, a heart-to-heart dialogue between the two leaders will promote free trade,” read the op-ed.
It comes as China is engaged in an escalating battle over trade with the Trump administration in the United States, which has threatened tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese goods.
Whether Modi and Xi can work to develop closer trade ties, will depend to some extent on their ability to overcome more lasting, politically sensitive issues.
In a statement posted to social media Froday, and addressed to Modi, Indian opposition leader Raul Gandhi asked the prime minister to not lose sight of India’s “crucial issues,” including the border dispute at Doklam and China’s large-scale economic investment in Pakistan.
Tensions between India and China rapidly escalated in July over a thin strip of land bordering both countries, as well as the kingdom of Bhutan, in the Himalayas.
Bhutan accused the Chinese government of violating its treaty obligations by building a road inside Bhutan’s territory. Beijing denied the accusation, saying the area – known as Doklam – was Chinese territory.
India and Bhutan have historically strong relations and the situation quickly grew more serious, as both countries increased their military presence on the border.
Eventually both Beijing and New Delhi agreed jointly to an “expeditious disengagement,” although Chinese state media insisted “China will continue to exercise its sovereign rights.” It came just days before Xi and Modi were due to meet in early September at the BRICS Summit in Xiamen.
The Doklam standoff was the latest in a long-running series of territorial flare-ups between the two superpower neighbors.
In 1962, China and India engaged in a bloody border war, and skirmishes have continued to break out sporadically in the decades since.
Other longtime sore points between the neighbors include China’s ardent backing of Pakistan, India’s arch rival, and New Delhi’s sheltering of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader whom Beijing considers a separatist traitor.