China's Xi to visit India, set tone for future relations

China's Xi to visit India, set tone for future relations
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) receives blessings from his mother Hira Ba, 92, on his 64th birthday at her home in Gandhinagar.

AHMEDABAD, India - India's new prime minister will spend his 64th birthday Wednesday at a private dinner with Xi Jinping, as China's leader begins a visit that will set the tone for relations between Asia's rival superpowers.

Despite his hardline nationalist reputation, Narendra Modi moved quickly to engage with China after taking office in May, and has pulled out all the stops for Xi's first state visit to India.

The Chinese president will arrive in Ahmedabad, the main city in Modi's home state of Gujarat, where giant billboards in Mandarin, Gujarati and English have been put up to welcome him.

Workers were out in force on the roads leading to Ahmedabad airport early Wednesday, repainting white lines and levelling the surface.

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.

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.

India's new government recently eased restrictions on construction in the areas up to 100 kilometres (62 miles) of the disputed border, allowing the Indian military to build roads and other infrastructure in an area that China claims as its own.

But both sides say they want to focus on economic cooperation, with India seeking Chinese funding for a planned 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 an article in The Hindu daily on Wednesday.

He said the "the world's factory and the world's back office" made a winning combination, welcoming Indian businesses to China and pledging funding for infrastructure development.

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.

Modi ran for election promising to revive India's flagging economy, which experts say has been held back by poor infrastructure. He called for more Chinese investment when he met Xi in Brazil in July.

China meanwhile is eager 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.

Tibet protesters detained

Modi has spoken of his admiration for China's economic growth in the last decade.

But he also 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.

China's consul-general in Mumbai Liu Youfa told the Times of India daily ahead of the visit that Xi would "commit investments of over $100 billion", pointing out that this was three times the amount pledged by Japan during a visit by Modi earlier this month.

Xi heads to India after visiting the Maldives and Sri Lanka as China increasingly asserts its influence in a region that has traditionally come under India's sphere of influence.

Before flying out on Wednesday morning, Xi launched the construction of a US$1.4 billion (S$1.77 billion) port city in Sri Lanka's capital, a strong reminder of Beijing's growing foothold in the Indian Ocean region.

Colombo has sought to allay Indian fears by insisting its relations with Beijing are based on commercial rather than security considerations.

But some in New Delhi still fear China's growing engagement in the region is a deliberate strategy to encircle India.

The presence in India of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, is another source of tension between India and China.

Police in New Delhi detained around 10 Tibetan protesters outside the Chinese embassy on Wednesday morning.

Another Tibetan was detained at the former hermitage of independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, now a museum, which Xi was due to visit later Wednesday.

The man, who was carrying a Tibetan flag, said he was there "to tell Xi to free Tibet".

Xi will have dinner with Modi in a tent on the riverbank in Ahmedabad, where he is expected to announce plans to build a Chinese-funded industrial park.

On Thursday he will hold formal talks with Modi and President Pranab Mukherjee in New Delhi and sign a series of agreements with the prime minister.


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