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International relations

Modi and Xi to meet informally in sign of rapprochement

Asia's nuclear powers aim to reset ties torn by last year's border standoff

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the BRICS Summit in Xiamen in the southeast of China.   © Reuters

NEW DELHI -- Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping will hold an "informal" summit this week in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, the first of its kind between the two leaders that is hoped will mend bilateral ties after last year's military standoff on the Doklam plateau bordering Bhutan.

The announcement about the April 27-28 meeting was made in Beijing on Sunday after talks between Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi and visiting Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj.

"It will be an important occasion for [Modi and Xi] to exchange views on bilateral and international matters from an overarching and long-term perspective with the objective of enhancing mutual communication at the level of leaders," Swaraj said in a press statement after holding talks with her Chinese counterpart.

Wang said the two countries should take the opportunity "to cement strategic trust, deepen substantial cooperation, properly settle disputes and realize common development, therefore contributing to regional and world peace and development," according to China's official Xinhua news agency.

The informal summit was thought to have been suggested by China. Modi already visited the southeastern Chinese city of Xiamen last September to attend a summit of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). He is scheduled to visit the eastern Chinese city of Qingdao in June to attend a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit, which will make it the third Chinese trip for Modi in less than a year.

Experts said that it is clear that the Chinese had put a great deal of thought into inviting Modi over on three visits in such a short period of time. It is also unusual for Xi to welcome foreign dignitaries at provincial cities. 

Among the issues that are expected to come up for discussion during the meeting is the longstanding border problem. India and China, two nuclear-armed countries which have long been fractious neighbors, share a 3,500km border and in 1962 fought a war over it.

The ties deteriorated last year due to a tense border standoff on the Doklam plateau over the construction of roads in the area. The standoff lasted for 73 days -- the longest such confrontation between the two countries in decades.

Srikanth Kondapalli, professor of New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University, expects there will be "no major breakthrough [during the weekend summit], but [there will be] some kind of understanding not to precipitate the bilateral relations such as Doklam last year."

Analysts said the meeting is significant as Modi is facing general elections next year when he will seek a second five-year term.

"Before going to elections he can say: 'Look, I have achieved something with regard to China,'" said Pankaj Jha, a professor of defense and strategic studies at the O.P. Jindal Global University and former research director of the Indian Council of World Affairs. "He wants to go to the 2019 general elections with a success story with regard to China."

For China, its motive behind softening its stance toward India is its deteriorating trade relations with the U.S., experts said.

In a bid to gain the upper hand in its negotiation with Washington, Beijing has been busy promoting itself as a defender of free trade and trying to solidify relations with countries that are against protectionism. By pulling India into its camp, China can better position itself in a trade spat with the U.S. Improved relations with New Delhi will also enable Beijing to drive a wedge into the strategy of a "free and open Indo-Pacific region" proposed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and supported by U.S. President Donald Trump.

Modi and Xi may also discuss the Tibet issue after the Dalai Lama, who lives in exile in India and who is considered a dangerous separatist by Beijing, expressed his desire to return to his palace in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, Jha said. 

India has been more careful in its handling of Tibet lately, not wanting to raise the ire of China. New Delhi has since last year encouraged Tibetans in exile to apply for Indian passports but in March, it banned Tibetans from holding a rally with the Dalai Lama to mark his 60 years in exile, a move that was seen as placating Beijing.

Other topics that are likely to crop up in the Xi-Modi meeting are the formalization of an arrangement to share hydrological data, joint efforts to combat climate change and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. 

The CPEC is a signature project in China's Belt and Road Initiative. China has kept its door open for India to join the BRI but New Delhi has refrained from committing, partly because it thinks the CPEC challenges its sovereignty as it passes through Kashmir over which it is in dispute with Pakistan. 

BRI also involves India's close neighbors Sri Lanka, Nepal and the Maldives, all of which New Delhi is trying to maintain its influence over. 

It is unlikely that Modi will agree on joining the BRI due to Kashmir but both parties are "likely [to discuss cooperation in regional connectivity,] but not [the one] passing through Kashmir," Kondapalli said.

Nikkei staff writer Yuji Kuronuma in New Delhi and Nikkei China bureau chief Tetsushi Takahashi in Beijing contributed to this story.

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