NEW DELHI - An informal summit between Chinese President Xi Jingping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi got off to a quiet start Friday as the two leaders shook hands and visited three ancient monuments in Mamallapuram, a coastal town in southern India.
But the task of addressing fresh strains in their ties in the wake of India’s decision to cancel partial autonomy in the disputed Kashmir region may not be easy when the two leaders hold more substantive talks on Saturday.
Xi arrived to a welcome of traditional dances in India two days after saying he was closely watching the situation in Kashmir, and he reiterated strong diplomatic backing for India’s archrival, Pakistan, which has opposed New Delhi’s actions in Kashmir. India’s foreign ministry retaliated by saying it was "not for other countries to comment on the internal affairs of India."
Officials have not confirmed whether the thorny issue of Kashmir, the Himalayan region that both India and Pakistan claim, will figure in the talks.
If it does, though, Modi is expected to urge Xi to be more "sensitive" to India's concerns and to explain why his government decided to revoke Kashmir’s autonomy, Indian officials have said.
Hours before Xi landed in India, police detained about a dozen Tibetan activists planning to protest the Chinese leader’s visit. Those held in custody include the leader of the Tibetan Youth Congress, Gonpo Dhondup, who shouted, “We want freedom” as he was hustled away.
New Delhi, which is home to Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile, has routinely foiled efforts by Tibetan activists to stage protests during the visit of Chinese dignitaries.
Indian officials say bolstering border security along their nearly 3,500-long kilometer border in the high Himalayas is expected to be a key focus of the talks.
That could include new confidence-building measures to avoid flare-ups that occasionally erupt between their troops along stretches of the border that are not demarcated.
“There may be some announcements concerning additional border personnel meetings, additional border post openings from the current three, and additional joint operations between the Indian and the Chinese army,” says Srikanth Kondipalli, a professor of Chinese studies at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.
India also will press China to take steps to bridge a trade deficit that has been ballooning in Beijing’s favor despite New Delhi’s repeated demands for more access to Chinese markets for industries like pharmaceuticals and software.
The informal summit in southern India is the second one between the Chinese and Indian leaders. The first one was held in Wuhan in China last April.
Analysts say despite the differences that have dogged their ties and a history of mistrust following a brief border war in 1962, these meetings underline that the two neighbors and strategic rivals are keen for relations to remain on an even keel.
“It helps to reduce overall tensions. That is the very limited, short-term objective of this meeting,” according to Jayadeva Ranade, who heads the Center for China Analysis and Strategy in New Delhi. He says Beijing is also keen to ensure that India, which has been developing close ties to the United States, "does not go too much to the side of the Americans."
U.S. President Donald Trump recently met with Modi in the United States. Trump appeared with Modi before a largely Indian audience of some 50,000 people who packed Houston stadium for the "Howdy Modi" event last month.