Mamallapuram, the ancient port town near Chennai, is getting ready to host the Chinese President Xi Jinping for an informal summit with Prime Minister Narenda Modi this weekend (October 11-13). After winning his second term, Modi formally extended an invitation to Xi in June at the Bishkek summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the latter responded positively. The optics would show Modi receive Xi near the Arjuna Penance and the photo sessions would cover the Five Raths (chariots), Krishna’s butterball and the Shore Temple as they stroll along the premises.
This is the second informal summit between the two leaders, after Wuhan, which was held in April 2018 in China. A lot of significance is being attached to this meeting amidst tensions between the two countries on the Kashmir and border issues. The Wuhan exercise, the first of its kind between the two leaders, was touted as a great success as it gave strategic guidance to the militaries on both sides to strengthen their relations in the backdrop of Doklam stand-off. Since then, Modi and Xi have met ten times, though it was mostly in multilateral summits. The Mamallapuram summit is expected to give a further push to the Sino-Indian ties.
The summit has no set agenda, as the two leaders are expected to hold freewheeling discussions, just as they did in Wuhan where they had six intense sessions in 24 hours. While New Delhi is tight-lipped, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told a media briefing recently: "I think for those things like Kashmir, I don't think it will be a major topic occupying the talks, that is my understanding". On the border question, Hua said: "Both sides can work together to safeguard, to maintain, to make sure the border, the border areas be kept in peace and stability”.
It is expected that they are likely to touch upon various subjects of mutual interest, including strategic communications, global issues, border-related discussions and boosting people-to-people contacts, keeping aside contentious issues. The timing of the summit is indeed interesting because China is engaged in a trade war with the US and handling the protests in Hong Kong, while India has its hands full dealing with Kashmir and economy.
Why Mamallapuram? The history of the port town goes beyond the Pallava dynasty. According to the legends, it was called ‘Kadalmalai’ (the land of sea and mountain.) Its religious centre was founded by the 7th century Pallava king Narasimhavarman, known as Mamalla. Marco Polo in his travel book mentioned the temple, referring to it as the Seven Pagodas of Mamallapuram. The Five Rathas are the remains of the seven temples. It is interesting that the temples even withstood the tsunami and the UNESCO has taken over the site since 1984.
One of the reasons for choosing Mamallapuram is that it has some China connection. Ancient Chinese, Persian, and Roman coins found at Mamallapuram reveal its earlier existence as a seaport. Historical records also show that the Pallava kings established cultural, defence, trade, and commercial ties with Southeast Asia, including China. Importantly, Buddhism travelled to China via Mamallapuram. Bodhidharma, a Pallava prince, travelled to China in 642 AD and became not only an icon in China but also the 28th patriarch of Buddhism. The famous Chinese scholar and political philosopher Huang Tsung had recorded details of his visit to the Pallava capital Kancheepuram. According to China experts, the Tang dynasty of the Chinese even appointed the third king of Pallavas, Rajasimhan XI, as their general for South China.
External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has put it in perspective recently claiming that it would be held in "as warm a spirit as Wuhan”, pointing out that "it is important for both India and China, which are rising powers, to find equilibriums because each has their own expectations of the world and of each other".
The two leaders are meeting at the backdrop of Beijing’s open support to Pakistan in internationalizing Kashmir issue after the abrogation of Article 370. New Delhi frowned at the recent speeches made by the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi supporting Imran Khan at the UNGA. All these have certainly diluted the Wuhan spirit.
Moreover, New Delhi remains wary of growing Pakistan-China strategic nexus and China’s business and strategic forays into India’s neighbourhood. On the other hand, Beijing is suspicious of the growing closeness between New Delhi and Washington, when the trade war between China and the US continues. Despite all that, New Delhi has shown restraint on Hong Kong revolts claiming that it is their internal affair.
A relaxed summit on the shores of Mamallapuram even if it is for just seven hours of private interaction, is expected to bring down the political temperature. Obviously, the two sides want to keep it a low profile affair as neither expects any breakthrough. While informal summits of this type will be of enormous value in the changing China-India relationship with both countries headed by strong leaders, optics are likely to overtake substance.
The writer is a freelance journalist. Views are personal.
-By Kalyani Shankar