Modi-Xi summit: On shores of Mahabalipuram, ironing out a sea of differences

Shubhajit Roy, Arun Janardhanan, Sowmiya Ashok
Xi Jinping, who landed at around 2 pm in Chennai, decided to drive to Mahabalipuram, while PM Narendra Modi flew in a chopper to reach the seaside temple town, overlooking the Bay of Bengal. (PTI Photo)

Amid the majestic seventh century monuments of Tamil Nadu’s coastal town of Mahabalipuram, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping Friday sat down to iron out a sea of differences and take on the challenges that have plagued ties between the two countries over the past few months — from Kashmir to terrorism and from boundary disputes to the burgeoning trade deficit.

With Modi dressed in traditional Tamil Nadu attire and Xi in an informal white shirt and black trousers, the two leaders sat down for brief discussions at the picturesque Panch Rathas, sipping coconut water under the afternoon sun.

They would have had much to discuss with several sensitive issues testing the relationship, with China’s critical position on the Centre’s move to scrap the special status of Jammu & Kashmir. Just like the first informal summit in Wuhan took place in the backdrop of the Doklam crisis, the two leaders will meet for the second such summit in the backdrop of the Kashmir issue.

Xi, who landed at around 2 pm in Chennai, decided to drive to Mahabalipuram, while Modi flew in a chopper to reach the seaside temple town, overlooking the Bay of Bengal.

When the two leaders met for the first time in Mahabalipuram at around 5 pm, Modi took it upon himself to give a guided tour of the monuments built by the Pallava Dynasty in the seventh century — a UNESCO heritage site.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Arjuna's Penance in Mahabalipuram on Friday. (ANI Photo)

First, they met at Arjuna’s Penance, and from there, they crossed Krishna’s butterball, and headed to Panch Rathas before finally reaching the Shore Temple. Here, they spent almost an hour touring the monuments and sat down for about 15 minutes at the Panch Rathas where they took a break from the sultry weather.

At the Shore temple, the two leaders formally introduced their delegations to each other - the Indian team comprising NSA Ajit Doval, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, all dressed in formal suits, while the Chinese delegation comprising Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and State Councillor Yang Jiechi dressed in informal shirts and trousers, just like Xi.

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The two leaders watched a cultural performance before discussions over dinner. At the dinner, the two sides will be joined by eight members from both sides, as they are served cuisine with local flavours- including Chicken Chettinad.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping during the 2nd informal summit at the famous site of Pallava Era in Mahabalipuram on Friday. (ANI Photo)

The two leaders will meet again Saturday at the Tango Hall in Taj Fisherman’s Cove, which will be followed by delegation-level talks. There will press statements from both sides and no joint statement or MoUs are expected.

Meanwhile, in Beijing, the Indian Embassy announced that it will further ease its e-visa policy for Chinese nationals. Effective this month, “Chinese nationals can apply for e-tourist visa of five years validity with multiple entries. The visa fee for this 5-year multiple entry e-TV will be USD 80,” stated a press release from the embassy in Bejing.

“It is anticipated that this unilateral liberalisation of e-TV for Chinese nationals will further enhance people-to-people exchanges between the two countries and encourage more Chinese tourists to choose India as a destination for tourism purposes,” the release said.

In pictures | ‘Welcome to India’: PM Modi plays perfect host to Xi at Mahabalipuram

Earlier, as Xi landed, he was given a red carpet welcome at the airport on his arrival and received by Tamil Nadu Governor Banwarilal Purohit, Chief Minister K Palaniswami, Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam and Tamil Nadu Speaker P Dhanapal.

About 500 Tamil folk artistes rendered performances including “tappattam,” and “poi kal kuthirai” while a group of colourfully dressed women presented a Bharatanatyam programme to the accompaniment of ‘thavil’ and ‘nadaswaram’ (traditional percussion and wind instruments respectively) music.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Mahabalipuram on Friday. (ANI Photo)

A smiling Xi waved at the artistes as he paused briefly before moving on a slow pace. Temple priests with traditional honours greeted him before he boarded his car. As he left the venue, the Chinese leader was greeted by school children lining the road, who waved Chinese and Indian flags.

At a number of locations along the East Coast Road, artistes rendered folk performances and played traditional music to welcome the Chinese President - security agencies had identified 34 spots where the public and folk artists teams could gather.

Explained | How Mamallapuram became Mahabalipuram, regained old name

On Twitter, Modi said: “Landed in Chennai. I am happy to be in the great land of Tamil Nadu, known for its wonderful culture and hospitality... It is gladdening that Tamil Nadu will host President Xi Jinping. May this Informal Summit further strengthen ties between India and China.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President of the Peoples Republic of China, Xi Jinping at Krishna’s Butter Ball, in Mamallapuram on Friday. (ANI Photo)

Earlier in the day, Police detained over 50 Tibetan youth ahead of the summit, including a dozen Friday for organising protests.