As Tamil Nadu's Mamallapuram hosted the second informal summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, the bonhomie between two of the strongest contemporary world leaders and high-class diplomacy was at display under the shadow of festering tensions between the two neighbours over trade terror, Kashmir and issues related to regional dominance.
In less than a span of three weeks, Modi has managed to share a stage with the two strongest heads of state – US President Donald Trump and Xi – in separate and globally followed events that reflect his growing stature in the international arena.
The choice of the venue was in contrast to the one at the Sabarmati river front where the two leaders met in 2014 in Gujarat – Modi's home state. The venue at the beach town also reflected the RSS and BJP's growing ambitions of wooing south India. The BJP has set its eyes on winning at least 15 Lok Sabha seats in 2024 from Tamil Nadu and Kerala and by highlighting the culture and history of Mamallapuram the saffron party tried to disarm Tamils who suspect it of being a bully from the Hindi heartland.
Dressed in traditional Tamil attire of veshti, white shirt and angavastra, Modi won many a heart in Tamil Nadu as he touched a chord of millions by wearing the state's traditional dress. All through the engagement, the Prime Minister showed immense respect for the distinct Tamil identity and even tried to be a part of it. This was in continuation of Modi's visible stress on Tamil which was evident during his speeches in the US last month. On the day of Xi's arrival, the PM tweeted in Tamil and on the concluding day of the summit he greeted the Chinese people on the 70th anniversary of India-China diplomatic relations in Tamil.
The two leaders took a stroll, sipped fresh coconut water in a relaxed informal setting even as Modi took Xi for a guided tour of the famous world heritage sites of Arjuna's Penance, Krishna's Butterball, the Pancha Ratha and Shore temple.
Within days of invoking famous Tamil poet Kaniyan Pungundranar at the UN to showcase India's unity in diversity, the PM invited his global-stature “friend” Xi to Mamallapuram in Tamil Nadu. There can be no stronger warning to the DMK and its leader M K Stalin about the BJP's plans to breach the Tamil fortress than by organising Modi's flag march in Stalin's backyard. Tamil Nadu has 39 Lok Sabha seats and the BJP is hungry to make a debut in the state to boost its national tally.
In the analysis of some observers, China and India both wanted to present the outcome of the meeting as a big success to their respective people but there was not much that both sides could give each other. Despite this, babus and diplomats of both the nations tried hard to present the outing as a big success on day 2 of the informal summit which carried an overdose of recalling the ancient ties between India and China.
India was in no mood to accept any hard decisions by China on issues related to BRI infrastructure projects near the border, the US trade pact or the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) negotiations where Beijing is not keen to remove duties on 90% of traded goods with India in exchange for New Delhi's willingness to cut duties on 74% of it traded goods. Also, the Modi regime was mindful of tackling China's growing hunger to dominate the Indian Ocean region and repulse any attempts by India to mark its presence in the South China Sea through cooperation with regional players like Vietnam.
India tread cautiously and tried to extract as much from Xi that it could to boost its economy to grow. And this could become possible only because economic issues were kept on top of agenda and delinked from other thorny issues related to geo-politics and territorial irritants.
China, the most significant economic super power in the global order after the US, happens to be India's neighbour. This throws up both a challenge and an opportunity for India on how to counter the dragon's ambitions of dominance and benefit from China's growing economy. Yet, Modi's balancing act of preventing Xi from touching the issue of abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir or singing a pro-Pakistan tune showcased the prowess of the Prime Minister and his most qualified foreign minister S Jaishankar, who has earlier served as an envoy in China.
Xi is a strong leader, like Modi and his focus on economic nationalism and connectivity – as reflected in his pet BRI project – went well with PM's personal target of pampering his political ego and showing to the Opposition parties and the world that he is capable of getting around even the most difficult of situations and sorting out thorny issues with neighbours and foes. Above all, Modi succeeded in showing the world that he keeps the company of Trump and Xi, the two men who rule the global economy.
China also acknowledged the growing clout of India in the global order and wanted to accommodate New Delhi as much as possible to deflect the Western world's focus on its own human rights record, Uighur Muslims, Tibet and the unrest in Hong Kong.
Xi's priority for economic issues also forced him to step back and introspect on the future of his country's BRI cooperation with Pakistan that appears to be in the danger of getting disrupted if India, along with the US and other Western powers, manage to get Islamabad blacklisted under the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) over money laundering and terror funding. This, apparently, gave India a major bargaining chip against China.
The growing synergy between the US and India is also a cause of concern for China due to the soured trade ties between Washington and Beijing. Xi's visit to Mamallapuram came close to America announcing visa curbs for Chinese officials over Beijing's alleged "repression" of Uighurs and other Muslims in the western region of Xinjiang. If India is uncomfortable over Beijing talking about Kashmir – a subject on which China talked in the UN but later softened its stand – Xi would not want Modi to touch upon thorny issues like Xinjiang and Tibet.
The good thing about Modi-Xi interaction was that the two respected the sensibilities of the other side and refrained from pressing hard to seek reciprocal gestures on thorny issues. Security aspects were discussed with the primary focus of maintaining peace and tranquillity on the border.
Going by the lessons that Modi learnt from his Sabarmati river front meeting with Xi in 2014, the Prime Minister this time sought to sell another world class Indian tourist destination in Chinese tourists who showed immense interest in Gujarat after the widely covered outing between the two leaders five years ago. If the Wuhan summit last year, attracted many Indian tourists, Mamallapuram is all set to rise the priority charts of honeymooners from China. This flow of Chinese tourists is sure to augment economic activities and bring fruits of development to the historic city. Mamallapuram also enjoys a historic link with China as Buddhist monk Hiuen Tsang had visited the place in the seventh century. The ancient port town of Mamallapuram also was visited by Chinese sailors from Quanzhou.
Beyond the optics of the informal summit in south India and dissection of its outcome, both Modi and Xi managed to keep alive the relevance of their informal summits and sent a strong message of “all is well” between the neighbours – the only two major emerging economies with an over 1 billion population each – whose relations not only determine the direction of regional dynamics but also carry global dimensions. Modi and Xi finding common ground has the potential for the two nations to emerge as a block that can change the course of global narrative on economic and developmental goals. Besides common goals, if India manages to convince China to address the ballooning trade imbalance, which last year crossed a $57.86 billion from $51.72 billion in 2017, it could result in a big achievement for the Modi government..
Despite the irritants like the boundary issue and differences on Kashmir, Modi and Xi succeeded in insulating bilateral trade and development cooperation. In a major boost to Modi, Xi gave positive hints on counter-terror cooperation, trade and enhancing cooperation between militaries. India and China agreed that they need to work together to fight "radicalisation and terrorism as common challenges. Modi also reminded Xi about the two nation’s resolve to respect each other’s sensitivities, while Xi called for collective growth of the two neighbours.
Modi and Xi have met almost 10 times in the last two years and Mamallapuram was part of these continuing engagements that get wide media coverage. Despite the Indian Opposition parties' criticism of the grand summit, the just-concluded interaction between Modi and Xi represented the maturing relation between the two nations. The wide media coverage of the events took Modi to every household in Tamil Nadu and served as a platform for the BJP's southern foray – one of the key targets of the saffron party for holding the summit in the southern city.
Modi, in some way, managed to address global as well as southern Indian audience in once stroke by inviting over his “friend” Xi. The future course of the dialogue between the two nations and the BJP's political gains from the Mamallapuram outing may well get reflected in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls when Modi is expected to present a globally stronger India before voters.
Besides, through the highly successful informal meet Modi not only sent out a message to world leaders about his growing political strength globally, but also successfully sounded an electoral war cry in the home ground of regional parties like the DMK about the BJP's target of spreading base in South India.