It was a day when the heavens had opened up. Except for brief pauses, there was no let-up in the heavy rain, which had started the night before. But neither the unremitting downpour nor the grey skies that hovered over Beijing could mar the springtime charm of the Diaoyutai guest house. The elegant state property is China’s icon for high-brow diplomacy.
During spring, flowering trees of various hues erupt into life. Amid the riot of colour, the meandering canals and stately lawns provide the perfect backdrop for an engrossing dialogue. On April 22, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj was the guest of honour. Wang Yi, China’s Foreign Minister, awaited her arrival at the guest house. Mr. Wang had been recently elevated to the rank of State Councillor.
The Chinese Foreign Minister is an acclaimed workaholic, known for surrounding himself with his inner core even during his morning jogs. He greeted Ms. Swaraj with exceptional warmth, as soon as she had completed a brief red carpet walk, and was within audible distance.
An elaborate handshake followed, and warm words were exchanged. The two Foreign Ministers were then ushered into a conference room, where senior officials were already seated around a large table.
Ms. Swaraj, in her opening remarks, made sure that her Chinese host was congratulated effusively, not only on his diplomatic promotion, but also for his appointment as Beijing’s representative for high-level border talks with India. In another room, the media awaited the completion of talks. There was buzz that a major announcement was on its way. Chinese officials checked the mikes, while fidgety journalists scoured for the best vantage point to cover the much-awaited event.
After more than an hour, Ms. Swaraj emerged from her parleys and entered the media hall. Mr. Wang arrived shortly afterwards, apologising to the Minister for the brief delay. Amid high expectations, Mr. Wang broke the news that an informal but unprecedented two-day summit would be held in Wuhan between President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His pithy address was followed by Ms. Swaraj’s statement in Hindi. That tested the skills of the interpreters as her words were first translated into Chinese, and simultaneously into English for the benefit of the composite media contingent present in the room. The announcement of an open-ended summit ̥triggered a wild hunt for comparable precedents.
“The meeting can be as significant as the one in 1988 when Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi met, and will set the course for bilateral ties,” observed the state-run Global Times in an op-ed. Some China-based analysts who spoke to The Hindu compared the implications of the Wuhan summit to the formation of the OPEC — a seismic event of the 1970s. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou was emphatic during a media briefing that the Chinese side will unroll the red carpet for Mr. Modi in Wuhan. “Some arrangements will go beyond even the expectations of the Indian side,” he affirmed.
Mr. Kong was not wrong. Prime Minister Modi and President Xi met in a stately guesthouse, on the East Lake of Wuchang. The picturesque surrounding provided Mr. Xi and Mr. Modi — who boated in the lake and walked among the woods — the perfect setting for their trust building “heart-to-heart” talks.
Atul Aneja works for The Hindu and is based in Beijing