AHMEDABAD, India (AFP) – India’s new prime minister rolled out the red carpet for Xi Jinping in his home town on Wednesday, as the Chinese president began a maiden visit with both sides seeking to reset the relationship between Asia’s rival superpowers.
Narendra Modi has pulled out all the stops for Xi’s arrival, organising an intimate riverside dinner in Ahmedabad, the main city in his home state of Gujarat, where giant billboards in Chinese, Gujarati and English have been put up to welcome him.
With both sides eager to emphasise cooperation over competition, Xi said in an article published Wednesday that “the world’s factory and the world’s back office” made a winning combination, welcoming Indian businesses to China and pledging much-needed funding for infrastructure development.
Despite his hardline nationalist reputation, Modi moved quickly to engage with China after winning office this year on a campaign promise to revive India’s flagging economy, which experts say has been held back by weak infrastructure.
But Modi has also made clear he sees China as a competitor and intends to pursue a more muscular foreign policy than the previous centre-left Congress party government.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) and China’s President Xi Jinping (C) shake hands as Xi’s wife Peng Liyuan looks on before their meeting in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad September 17 – REUTERS
During his election campaign, he said that China would have to shed what he called its “expansionist mindset”, although he also spoke of his admiration for China’s economic success.
The neighbours, now nuclear-armed, fought a brief but bloody war in 1962 over the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh in the eastern Himalayas, and are still embroiled in a bitter dispute over the territory. Border issues are on the agenda for Xi’s visit, but both sides say they want to focus on economic cooperation, with India seeking Chinese funding for an overhaul of its dilapidated railways and cooperation in nuclear energy.
“China-India relations have become one of the most dynamic and promising bilateral relations in the 21st century,” wrote Xi in the article in The Hindu daily.
China is India’s biggest trading partner, with annual two-way commerce of more than $65 billion. But Indian data shows the trade deficit with China has soared to more than $40 billion from just $1 billion in 2001-02.
Experts said China would seek to allay Indian concerns over the widening deficit as it tries to cement its relationship with its western neighbour at a time of heightened tensions with Japan and several Southeast Asian nations over disputed sea territory.
Modi enjoys a close relationship with Japan’s President Shinzo Abe, and analysts have said he may be able to leverage Beijing’s rivalry with Tokyo to secure Chinese investment.