COLOMBO: There is a widespread feeling that nothing tangible will come out of the “informal” summit between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Chinese President Xi Jinping to be held at the seaside historic town of Mamallapuram near Chennai between October 11 and 13.

This belief is well-founded because the two countries have drifted apart very noticeably in the recent past, especially after August 5 this year, when India abolished the special status enjoyed by the northern State of Jammu and Kashmir (J and K) which borders China and Pakistan.

However, both Modi and Xi know that they cannot afford to escalate the “differences” to make them “conflicts.” Indian Foreign Minister S.Jaishankar has said so explicitly, and the Chinese Ambassador to India, Sun Weidong, said the same thing in an interview to Press Trust of India on Tuesday.

The two emerging Asian powers should not let the boundary dispute adversely impact the normal development of bilateral relations, Sun said.

"Before the final settlement of the boundary question, we need to jointly maintain peace and tranquility in the border areas. I want to point out that it is normal for neighbors to have differences. The key is to properly handle differences and find a solution through dialogue and consultation," the envoy said.

“Over the past decades, not a single bullet has been fired at the China-India border area, and peace and tranquility have been maintained. The boundary question is only one part of China-India relations. We need to keep it in the larger picture of China-India relations and not let the boundary dispute affect the normal development of bilateral relations," Sun added.

Answering a query on whether the Pakistan Prime Minister Imran, who was in China to meet Chinese leaders this week, would talk about Kashmir, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said: “China's position on Kashmir issue is clear and consistent. We call on India and Pakistan to engage in dialogue and consultation on all issues including the Kashmir issue and consolidate mutual trust. This is in line with the interest of both countries and common aspiration of the world.”

Significantly, Geng made no mention of past UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions on Kashmir , which would have irked the Indians.

Pathway Strewn With Obstacles

Nevertheless, the pathway to a meaningful and fruitful Sino-Indian dialogue is strewn with obstacles placed by both sides.

For China as well as Pakistan, the take- over of J and K by the Indian Central government by reducing it to the status of a Union Territory, has strategic significance, which the two countries cannot overlook.

New Delhi’s abrogation of Art. 370 of the Indian constitution given a special status to J and K, increases India’s strategic grip over J and K to the detriment of China and Pakistan, both of which have claims over the area. While Pakistan claims the Kashmir Valley, China, claims Aksai Chin.

Both China and Pakistan vehemently protested against the Indian action of August 5, which included a complete lockdown of the Kashmir Valley which is still to end. China, which has pledged US$ 60 billion to the multi-purpose China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CEPC) linking Xinjiang with Gawadar port on the Arabian Sea, had to come to its “all-weather” friend’s aid if only to safeguard its investment.

Beijing was also keen on preventing Pakistan from pruning CPEC projects to scale down its indebtedness.

China shocked India when, on behalf of Pakistan, it got the UN Security Council (UNSC) to discuss the Indian take over issue. Although the UNSC let India off the hook by not condemning it, China demanded that India settle the issue with Pakistan as per past UNSC resolutions. India rejected this saying that India and Pakistan had agreed to settle all matters bilaterally as per the Simla Agreement of 1972.

But China was persistent. “The Kashmir issue should be peacefully and properly addressed, in accordance with the UN Charter, Security Council resolutions and bilateral agreement,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi said during the subsequent UN General Assembly secession.

China also claims the North Eastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh as part of “southern Tibet”. In September, Indian and Chinese troops came close to fighting north of Pangong Lake in Ladakh. In October, in a move which drew protests from Beijing, the Indian army conducted a high altitude military exercise “Him Vijay” just 100 km from the Sino-Indian border in Arunachal Pradesh.

Modi showcased his bonhomie with US President Donald Trump in Houston, Texas, just ahead of the UNGA session, where the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi showed the red rag to India by urging it to follow UNSC resolutions on Kashmir. Earlier this month, India instructed its universities not to enter into academic cooperation agreements with Chinese institutions without prior Central government approval.

As a further sign of tension, China did not officially announce the dates of Xi’s visit to India although India had been busy sprucing up Mamallapuram and putting together all the necessary security measures .

When asked to confirm Xi’s visit, the Chinese Foreign Office spokesman, Geng Shuang, did not give a direct answer but said: “ Both India and China are major developing countries of the world and major emerging markets. Since the Wuhan informal summit, our bilateral relations have gathered good momentum. We have been advancing our cooperation and properly managing our differences. We have a tradition of high-level exchange and our two sides are maintaining communication on high-level exchange in the next phase. We should make a good atmosphere and environment for this.”

Even uncertainty prevailed over the summit, Beijing played host to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. According to Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, the Chinese leaders promised to keep Pakistan briefed on the Xi-Modi talks at Mamallapuram.

No Replication of Wuhan

Given the obstacles, the Mamallapuram summit is not expected to replicate the Wuhan Summit in April 2018.

Writing in Asia Times Prof.Swaran Singh of Jawaharlal Nehru University recalled that the “Wuhan summit achieved two breakthrough agreements: One, the two leaders provided a strategic direction to their forces to ensure peace and tranquility on their disputed borders; and the second was President Xi’s 2+1 model.”

“This model was an innovative offer to get India to join China’s infrastructure building across Asia. India, which has been reluctant to participate in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, was offered to be treated on an equal footing to launch third-country projects. The first instance of this saw China and India providing joint training to Afghan diplomats in August last year.”

Though no such concrete gain is expected from the Mamallapurm summit, Modi and Xi are determined to use it to keep the relationship going for the following reasons: The 3400 km Sino-Indian border has to be tranquil and bilateral trade should grow.

Sino-Indian bilateral trade, which was to reach US$ 100 billion by 2019, is now receding, as both sides are buying less from each other. Besides, India is facing a trade deficit of more than US$ 57 billion which it would like to narrow. China is still to let Indian goods in, in any substantial way. It has been stonewalling the entry of Indian pharmaceutical products.

Use of Ancient Links

One way of keeping the relations ticking is to build on the ancient cultural links between India and China. In this context, the choice of Mamallapuram in coastal Tamil Nadu as the site for the summit is appropriate.

Mamallapuram and China had trade, religious and cultural links in the 6 th. and the 7 th. Centuries under the Pallava kings of Tamil Nadu. According to Dr.Swaran Singh, in AD 527, Bodhidharma, the third son of a Pallava king had reached China and became the 28th Patriarch of Buddhism. According to historian K A Nilakanta Sastri, Bodhidharma becoming an icon of the Chinese civilization.

In AD 642, the famous Chinese scholar-traveller, Hiuen Tsang visited Kancheepuram, the capital of the Pallavas, and the two sides exchanged embassies.