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Opinion

Modi should not become complacent after successful summit with Xi

Kashmir and Pakistan are causing rift between India and China

Xi and Modi raise hands together at Arjuna's Penance in Mamallapuram, India: the informal summit mechanism works best as it removes any compulsion for formalized joint declarations.   © (Indian Prime Minister's Office/AP)

Chinese President Xi Jinping was in India recently for an informal summit with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Mamallapuram, on the outskirts of the southern city of Chennai. This was the second informal summit between the two leaders; the first was in April 2018, not long after the Doklam border standoff in Bhutan between the two Asian behemoths.

By selecting Mamallapuram, New Delhi emphasized the historical connection between India and China: it is believed that the Chinese monk Hiuen Tsang had visited there in the 7th century.

Indeed, increasing mutual visits was on the agenda: Modi proposed giving "greater emphasis to tourism on both sides." With rising incomes, more Indian tourists are flocking to various destinations worldwide and China has much to offer. Likewise, Chinese tourists would also be interested in frequenting places in India, especially those associated with Buddhism.

But this was low-hanging fruit, and major areas of divergence exist between India and China. The issues of Kashmir, Pakistan and a huge trade imbalance are urgent and aggravating, and Modi cannot let even a warm meeting with Xi make him complacent about what India needs to achieve.

The biggest irritant in the relationship is of course China's support for Pakistan at all levels. After the recent administrative reorganization of Jammu and Kashmir, when the Indian government downgraded its status and split it in two, Pakistan -- which lays claim to Kashmir -- has been going hammer and tongs at India, with the diplomatic backing of China.

The China-Pakistan relationship has never been stronger. Beijing is working with Islamabad on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan visited China before Xi left on his trip to India and Nepal -- his third visit to China in less than a year.

Imran Khan, second left, walks with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang during a welcome ceremony in Beijing on Oct. 8: the China-Pakistan relationship has never been stronger.   © AP

Then there is the huge imbalance in the bilateral trade. Last year, India's trade deficit with China stood at $58 billion. During his meeting with Modi, Xi indicated that China was "ready to take sincere action in this regard and to discuss in a very concrete way how to reduce the trade deficit."

The border dispute between the two countries is clearly far from being resolved. In the run-up to this summit, the Chinese side had raised objections over the recent exercises conducted by Indian armed forces in the Indian border state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims.

New Delhi also has reasons to worry over China's growing reach in the Indian Ocean region, which New Delhi has seen as its strategic backyard.

On his way back, Xi stopped by Nepal where he announced that China would be providing financial aid worth $490 million to Nepal for developmental projects, while a feasibility study for a railway link between China and Nepal will start soon.

It is worth remembering here that Nepal has an open border with India and, despite close historical and religious links with India, has enthusiastically signed on to China's Belt and Road Initiative.

Their differences aside, there are many areas where India and China are working together. For example, at the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank they have managed to keep politics and economics separate. Here, India is the second largest shareholder and nearly a quarter of the funds committed by the AIIB have been for projects in India.

In addition, China and India are collaborating in organizations like the BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The two countries have a big stake in peace and stability in Afghanistan, especially as the U.S. clearly wants its way out.

The informal summit mechanism works best for Sino-Indian relations as this removes any compulsion for formalized joint declarations as happens in other high-level summits. During a visit to China earlier this year, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar noted that "it was important that differences between us, if any, should not become disputes."

The summit venue, Mamallapuram, a once-thriving port city under kings who had sent envoys to China, may therefore signal a new era in Sino-Indian ties, where New Delhi and Beijing manage their differences, instead of allowing them to fester.

However, New Delhi must guard against any sense of complacency regarding China because -- as was clear from this informal summit -- Beijing will not yield an inch on its issues of core interest.

Rupakjyoti Borah is a Senior Research Fellow with the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo. His books include "The Elephant and the Samurai: Why Japan Can Trust India" and "Act-East via the Northeast."

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