A unique relationship requires unique and imaginative ways to manage differences. It is for this reason that India and China, with a 3,380 km common boundary, thousands of years of a shared history, and half-a-century of boundary disputes and tensions has always needed unique mechanisms. The second “informal summit” between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and China’s President Xi Jinping that begins on Friday is one such way for the two countries to deal with the ebb and flow in ties. The leaders last held an informal summit in Wuhan, in the wake of the Doklam crisis, when the time they spent visibly improved the atmospherics around the relationship . In the months prior to and following the Wuhan summit, the two nations brought down tensions along the boundary, initiated a new dialogue on trade, which led to more market access and a small indent in the $53-billion trade deficit between them, and saw more international coordination including at the WTO, and on climate change and terrorism. Earlier this year, China joined UNSC members in a statement condemning the Pulwama attack and then in May reversed its decade-old position by allowing the UNSC listing of the Jaish e Mohammad chief, Masood Azhar. Since the August 5 decision by the government on Article 370 and the bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh, and the strong reaction from China, these positive steps seemed to have been stalled. If Beijing’s decision to raise the Indian government’s move at the UNSC was a clear break from the “Wuhan Spirit”, its subsequent statements including at the UN General Assembly have alienated New Delhi further. Optics closer to the summit have been more troublesome, and Mr. Xi’s invitation to the Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan to visit Beijing in the same week that Mr. Xi meets Mr. Modi is clearly a negative signal ahead of the Chennai summit. India’s decision to hold mountain combat exercises in Arunachal Pradesh just prior to the summit is another in the series of red flags raised, which had even cast a doubt over whether the summit would go ahead.
As a result, Mr. Modi and Mr. Xi have their task cut out for them: in restoring some of the bonhomie from last year, while charting a course for ties ahead. In the immediate future, it is hoped that Mr. Xi will assuage India’s concerns on trade issues with a view to meeting the deadline for the ASEAN-led RCEP free trade agreement in November, and possibly direct special representatives on the boundary issue to speed up their talks. For the larger picture, it is important that they end the downslide in bilateral ties and set up more robust communication in order to address each other’s concerns in a timely manner. If the Wuhan summit focused on a reset between India and China, the Chennai summit will be successful if it ensures that there is no rollback in the relationship, a goal that will no doubt be aided by the Mamallapuram setting, which will remind the leaders of the ancient and traditional ties between the two countries based on trade, travel, and faith.