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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Xi and Modi meet amid China-India tensions

Chinese president hopes informal two-day summit will "usher in a new chapter" of relations with India

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visit an exhibition at Hubei Provincial museum in Wuhan, China on April 27, 2018. Press Information Bureau via Reuters
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visit an exhibition at Hubei Provincial museum in Wuhan, China on April 27, 2018. Press Information Bureau via Reuters

Chinese President Xi Jinping called for stepped-up co-operation with India during an informal summit with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday, amid tensions along their contested border and a rivalry for influence with their smaller neighbors that could determine dominance in Asia.

Mr Xi greeted Mr Modi at the provincial museum in the city of Wuhan at the start of two days of talks between the heads of the world's two most populous nations.

"Conducting great co-operation by our two great countries can generate worldwide influence," Mr Xi told state broadcaster CCTV.

He said he hoped the meeting would "usher in a new chapter of China-India relations".

Following their talks, the leaders were to dine lakeside at a resort that had been a favourite of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong, who formed strong ties with an independent India before relations deteriorated over territorial disputes.

They are to continue talks on Saturday with a walk along the lake, a boat ride and lunch together.

Indian Ministry of External Affairs spokesman Raveesh Kumar tweeted that the leaders would "review the developments in our bilateral relations from a strategic and long-term perspective".

China-India relations date back centuries but in recent decades have been characterised by competition for leadership in Asia.

The countries fought a border war in 1962 and last year engaged in a 10-week standoff in the neighboring state of Bhutan. New Delhi has also been alarmed by China's moves to build strategic and economic ties with Indian Ocean nations including Sri Lanka, the Maldives and India's longtime rival Pakistan.

China for its part resents India's hosting of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, and its control of territory Beijing says belongs to it.

China claims some 90,000 square kilometres of territory in India's north-east, while India says China occupies 38,000 sq km of its territory on the Aksai Chin Plateau in the western Himalayas. Officials have met at least 20 times to discuss the competing border claims without making significant progress.

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Following the most protracted standoff in years, India last year agreed to pull back troops from the disputed Doklam Plateau high in the Himalayas, where Chinese troops had begun constructing a road. China claims the strategically important region, but India says it belongs to ally Bhutan.

Despite such differences, Mr Modi hopes China can help drive Indian economic growth ahead of national elections next year.

However, his administration has been notably reluctant to engage with Beijing's "Belt and Road" initiative linking its economy to those of Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe through massive loans and investments.

Given the state of relations, the Wuhan summit should be seen as a conscientious attempt to steer ties in a new direction, said Wang Lian, a professor at Peking University's School of International Relations.

"This meticulously planned meeting will offer the leaders more time to discuss current issues and the future blueprint for bilateral relations," Mr Wang said.

Regardless of the current visit's outcome, Mr Modi appears intent on building a strong personal relationship with Mr Xi, who will be China's leader for years to come following the lifting of term limits on the presidency.

Mr Modi will be travelling to China again in June for a summit of the eight-member Shanghai Co-operation Organisation dominated by Beijing and Moscow.

Along with China, Russia and India, that group includes the Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan as well as Pakistan.