Modi-Xi and the Chennai Connect: From Home Town Diplomacy to Civilizational Diplomacy
Dr Teshu Singh

Chinese President Xi Jinping visited India on the invitation of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the second informal summit. The previous one was held at the Wuhan in 2018. It was the 19th meeting between the two leaders at various multilateral and bilateral including the informal summits. He was accompanied by 90 member delegation and drove in Hongqi from Chennai to Mahabalipuram. Both leaders visited the iconic monuments of the Arjuna’s Penance, Pancha Rathas and the Shore Temple. This was followed by a cultural programme at the complex of the temple. The venues of the informal summits have become important as they are symbolic and tend to convey the message to the other side. If the last summit was termed as “Home Town Diplomacy” (Xian is the home state of Xi Jinping) then the Mahabalipuram Summit can be called as Civilisational Diplomacy. The leaders mulled over the bilateral issue in the scenic beauty of the Bay of Bengal down.

Mahabalipuram is an ancient port city since the Pallava Dynasty and has historical linkages with China nearly 2000 years old. In the course of the summit, Prime Minister Modi has reestablished the importance of India as a civilisational nation and successfully showcased the Indian civilization especially the maritime history. The souvenirs given to Xi Jinping - the Nachiarkoil Branched Annam Lamp and Thanjavur Painting depicting Dancing Saraswathi and a hand woven Silk Portrait has reinstated the importance of India’s and rich Indian cultural heritage and civilisation.

It may be noted that the background for both the summits were different. The Wuhan summit was held against the Doklam standoff between the Chinese and the Indian armies at the India-Bhutan-China tri-junction in Sikkim and by the time the leaders met the tension had diffused to some extent. On the other hand, the Mahabalipuram summit was held against the strong Chinese stance supporting Pakistan on the changes in the article 370 of the Indian Constitution. The Chinese reaction was in contradiction with the Astana Declaration between the two countries and cast a shadow on the pre-summit preparations.

This was the first meeting between the leaders after China raised the issue informally in the United Nation Security Council. The summit in a way soothed some of the feelings especially since China did not raise the matter during the discussions.

Outcome of the Meeting

The Ministry of External Affairs of India released two official documents; first the briefing by the Foreign Secretary of India1. Second, the press release on the Second Informal Summit. 2 The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs released notification/announcement3 on Xi Jinping’s visit to India and it was mostly clubbed together with his visit to Nepal under the heading Xi Jinping South Asia Tour. 4 The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China released a Media Briefing by the Vice Foreign Minister, Luo Zhaohui (Former Ambassador to India). 5

There was no joint statement signed as it was an informal summit. The Press release by India and the Media Briefing by China was “coordinated” and is more or less same but worded differently keeping in mind their own interpretations and the domestic audience. The documents essentially highlighted the issue of terrorism, radicalization, sustainable development, civilizational linkages and rule-based and inclusive international order. The stress was on the positivity of the relations and highlighted the potential role of India and China in the emerging global order.

On the issue of boundary, both the sides agreed that the boundary issue should be settled according to the 2005 agreements on settlement based on Political Parameters and Guiding Principle. In addition, the Chinese side added that “the two sides will prudently control differences and prevent differences from escalating into dispute”. On the issue of connectivity, the Chinese side added that “China is willing to actively promote cooperation between China and India, Myanmar and Bangladesh with India and related country.”

On trade, ahead of the meeting 120 Memorandum of Understandings were signed by private companies from India and China for the export of various products from India, including sugar, chemical, fish, plastic, pharmaceutical and fertilizers.6 A high-level Economic and Trade Dialogue Mechanism to achieve enhanced trade and commercial relations as well as better trade balance between the two sides was agreed during the talks. The dialogue mechanism will be headed by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and the Chinese vice-Premier Hu Chunhua.

Cultural and people-to-people Exchanges were given significant importance in the discussions. The leaders agreed that 2020 will be designated as the Year of India-China Cultural and People-to-People Exchanges and the 70th anniversary of the bilateral relations will further used to deepen the relationship. The sister-city/ state relations were established between Tamil Nadu and Fujian Province. Ahead of the summit, Indian Embassy in China announced that Chinese National can apply for e-Tourist visa of 5 years with multiple entries. Potential tourist can avail single entry 30 days validity at reduced fees.7


Informal Summits has become a new framework for India-China relations. Xi Jinping acknowledged that the idea of the informal summit was initiated by PM Modi. The Mahabalipuram meeting has set the platform for further interactions. Consequently, the Defence Minister of India has been invited to visit China to discuss issues related to defence and Security.

Ironically, despite the frequent interactions between the leaders, the structural issue in India-China remain. The success of the informal summit will depend on the development of bilateral relations in the next few months. Until then it remains to be seen if the ‘Chennai connect’ has been able to build the disconnect that occurred in the last few months.

End notes

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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