Wuhan, a bustling Chinese city that boasts lakes, parks and the Yangtze River, was on Thursday all set to welcome Prime Minister Narendra Modi for an unprecedented “informal” two-day summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The summit is the first of its kind hosted by Xi, who rarely travels out of Beijing to host foreign leaders. There will be no joint statement or structured talks, and both sides are unlikely to announce any major breakthrough on the many issues that strain relations, from the border to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
“What we want is to come up with an overarching long-term vision for the next 100 years to deepen bilateral cooperation and properly handle differences to bring both countries to a new starting point,” said Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou.
Kong also revealed that the idea was a joint one, conceived when Modi and Xi met in Xiamen at the BRICS Summit in September, barely a week after the August 28 disengagement at Doklam.
“India didn’t initiate this summit. China didn’t initiate this summit. This was a joint initiative,” Kong said.
Over two days, Kong said China would surprise India by its hospitality and the red carpet it is laying for Modi. He said both leaders felt the need to meet informally-and in greater length.
“Xi and Modi have met so many times at various bilateral and multilateral forums. Each time they had good discussions, fostered a personal relationship and good working relationship. But they both felt that there’s still so much to say, so we wanted to create this environment for heart-to-heart talk between friends,” he said.
Kong revealed why Beijing chose Wuhan in central China as the venue. Former leader Mao Zedong had previously hosted world leaders there in his sprawling lakeside villa-a possible venue for Modi and Xi’s “walk and talk”-but Kong suggested more geographic reasons.
“Modi has been to Beijing in the north, Shanghai in the south, Xian in the west and Xiamen last year in the east. But he has never been to the centre of China, so we wanted to extend this invitation to Wuhan.
Comparing the two leaders, he said, “Xi and Modi both have strategic vision and historic responsibility. They are both widely supported by their people and have devoted a lot of energy to this relationship.”
So while major breakthroughs are unlikely, the idea is to find common cause even while shelving thorny issues such as the border, and find an “overarching” blueprint to manage ties, even if those difficult issues are likely to remain unresolved for the time being.
For China, there are also global motivations. The Trump factor has also forced China’s hand, and the threat of a trade war has unnerved Beijing which doesn’t want to be left isolated, or for India to be firmly in the US camp.
Gao Zhikai, a former translator to former leader Deng Xiaoping who hosted Rajiv Gandhi in 1988 for a breakthrough visit, said he was of the view the Wuhan Summit could also be a “landmark” event.
“The 1988 visit by Rajiv Gandhi broke the ice. PM Modi’s will be another important landmark visit because both India and China have changed a great deal over the years and face important challenges and tasks.”
“The summit will likely cement the friendship between India and China and bring to a new height relations between the two countries,” he said. “I think it will turn the relationship into a new nature of relations, hopefully eliminating the barriers and obstacles.”
Gao, who is also Vice President of the Centre for China and Globalisation, said: “The world is a turning point. Trade tensions between China and the US present an important choice for the world. China stands for the WTO and the US seems to be withdrawing from globalisation. It’s not only important for China but also India.”