India and China seek 'new era' in ties after leaders meet

Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping focus on trade and border differences at meeting in south India

Powered by automated translation

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi called on Saturday for a "new era" in relations with China as he held talks with President Xi Jinping aiming to overcome differences between the world's two most populous nations.

Mr Modi and Mr Xi strolled along a pristine Bay of Bengal beach and held one-on-one talks from chairs overlooking the ocean before their delegations sat down to official negotiations at the historic resort town of Mahabalipuram, south of Chennai.

The two leaders met for the second time in 18 months in a bid to ease tensions over border disputes, the troubled Kashmir region and China's domination of trade between their huge economies.

They reaffirmed a pledge made at the last summit in Wuhan, China, that "both sides will prudently manage their differences and not allow differences on any issue to become disputes", said an Indian government statement.

Mr Modi said the Wuhan summit had given "increased stability and fresh momentum to our relationship".

"Our Chennai vision today has launched a new era of co-operation between our two countries," he added.

Mr Xi said in his opening remarks to the summit delegations that he and Mr Modi held "candid discussions as friends".

The buildup to the summit has been dominated by India's move in August to end the autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir state.

Changes ordered by the New Delhi government will see Kashmir's Ladakh region – part of which is claimed by Beijing – turned into a separate Indian administrative territory.

India has moved closer to the United States and its allies in seeking a counter-weight to China's growing military shadow in the Asia-Pacific region.

It has been infuriated by China's backing for Pakistan, which controls a large chunk of Muslim-majority Kashmir.

The Himalayan region has been a long-standing source of conflict between India and Pakistan. China's proposal for major infrastructure building in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir as part of its Belt and Road programme has faced strong Indian opposition.

China is in turn sensitive to India letting the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama keep his base in northern India.

But most of the disagreements were pushed to one side for the summit.

Kashmir was not raised in the two days of talks, Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said.

They did however agree to step up their efforts so "that the international community strengthens the framework against training, financing and supporting terrorist groups throughout the world", said the Indian statement.

Modern rivalry between the world's two most populous countries dates back decades.

They went to war in 1962 over disputed Himalayan territory and other border standoffs remain. In 2017, the Indian and Chinese armies faced each other down for more than two months on a high altitude border plateau claimed by China and India's tiny Himalayan ally Bhutan.

Mr Modi and Mr Xi "reiterated their understanding that efforts will continue to be made to ensure peace and tranquility in the border areas, and that both sides will continue to work on additional confidence building measures", said the Indian statement.

On commerce, India and China are both facing a protectionist US and want greater access to each other's markets. India in particular is concerned by China's $57 billion (Dh209bn) surplus in their joint trade.

India's summit statement said high level talks would start on ways to "better balance" trade between the countries. Mr Modi and Mr Xi also agreed to "encourage" more cross-border investment.

No mention was made however of China's campaign for New Delhi to give Chinese telecoms giant Huawei a key part of India's transformation to 5G communications.

The United States has been lobbying strongly against letting Huawei spread its influence because of its alleged close links to the Beijing government.

China made no immediate comment on the summit. The official Xinhua news agency said Mr Xi received a "warm welcome" from Modi and they agreed their countries "should respect and learn from each other so as to jointly achieve common development and prosperity".

Mr Xi flew to Nepal for a one-day stopover on his way home in a country that India has traditionally considered within its sphere of influence. China is pressing for a greater share of Nepal's infrastructure projects.

Nepalese authorities detained at least 18 Tibetan activists in a bid to head off protests during the visit, the International Campaign for Tibet said.