NEW DELHI -- Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to join U.S. President Donald Trump and Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe in the first such trilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires this week, amid escalating U.S.-China trade tensions.
Modi, who arrives in the Argentinian capital Thursday for the two-day summit starting on Friday, is also scheduled to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping. It will be their fourth meeting this year, as both sides aim to build trust and establish common ground.
On Tuesday, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton told a media briefing in Washington that Trump, who is scheduled for a series of bilateral meetings at the G-20 summit, will hold talks with Abe. This will then expand into a trilateral meeting with Modi at some point, but Bolton did not disclose the agenda of the talks.
In New Delhi, Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale also did not confirm the Modi-Trump meeting, but said: "We are working on various bilateral meetings."
Experts say the three could discuss ways to consolidate their cooperation in the strategically important Indo-Pacific region, in particular through investments in infrastructure projects there, to offset China's expanding influence in the area.
India, however, is also seeking to improve ties with China after a 73-day military standoff on the Doklam plateau bordering Bhutan last year in the longest such confrontation between the two countries in decades. Modi held an informal summit with Xi in Wuhan in April in a step toward mending ties.
"The whole purpose of these meetings is to build a certain mutual trust and understanding in the relationship and it was decided during the meeting in Wuhan that they would take the opportunity wherever and whenever they could meet to have meetings and to discuss issues that are in either leader's mind which are of mutual concern," Gokhale said.
Pointing to the fact that this will be the fourth meeting between the two leaders in eight months, Gokhale said: "That in itself is indicative of the kind of political level exchanges and contacts that we have between China and India post-Wuhan."
Shamshad A. Khan, visiting associate fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, said, Modi will have to walk a tightrope with Japan and the U.S. on one side and China the other.
Khan said the first plenary of G20 in which Modi is participating is themed as "Putting People First" as against Trump's mantra of "America First." If Modi talks in favor of multilateralism, "he would be able to strike a chord with Xi, who after the raging U.S.-China trade war, has been arguing for a trade order based on multilateralism."
While some see it as India's efforts to strike a balance in its ties with Beijing and Washington, others feel Modi is only buying time until general elections in India due by May 2019 as he did not want his chances to be affected by any confrontation with China.
The two nuclear-armed countries, which have long been fractious neighbors, share a 3,500 km border and in 1962 fought a war over it.
"It's a very compelling time -- Abe is in his second term, Xi has an unlimited term, Trump is in the middle of his first term and Modi is looking at the 2019 elections seriously," said Pankaj Jha, who teaches defense and strategic studies at the O.P. Jindal Global University. "So there's political inertia which is inherent and [Modi is] buying time till 2019 polls and this is the reason he is trying to take both sides together."
He added if Modi returns to power, there could be more summit-level talks between the U.S., India and Japan instead of meetings at the margins of global events.