With history in sight and lake-side walk on itinerary, PM Modi arrives in Wuhan

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who arrived in China today, and President Xi Jinping will have at least five rounds of extensive talks over Friday and Saturday in Wuhan.

China selected Wuhan to give an informal, relaxed touch to the summit during which Modi and Xi can be at ease like at Sabarmati Ashram in Gujarat three years ago. Modi and Xi will stroll by the East Lake accompanied by translators and share a boat ride in the city, which sits on the famed Yangtze river. And most importantly, they will try and find some common ground on which they can erect a new foundation for India-China relations.

Xi leaving Beijing to meet a foreign leader is being seen as an unprecedented gesture. "Modi has been to Beijing in the north, Shanghai in the south, Xian in the west and Xiamen last year in the east. But he has never been to the centre of China. So, we wanted to extend this invitation to Wuhan," Chinese vice-foreign minister Kong Xuanyou told India Today.

The East Lake where the talks between Modi and Xi will be held.

Mao often frequented the famous lake and enjoyed his favourite pastime swimming in Yangtze. The place has iconic holiday villa of Mao, which is now a memorial where Xi is expected to take Modi around.

Earlier this week, Kong had told the media that Modi would stay in a most comfortable place in Wuhan. "The two leaders will spend two days in Wuhan. In these two days, they will engage with each other on various forums. What I can tell you is that they will spend a lot of time together one-on-one. This kind of one-on-one is not often seen in other countries."

As Modi left for Wuhan, the sprawling capital of Central China's Hubei province, on Thursday, Beijing readied the red carpet for him with expectations running high. Both Modi and Xi are expected to usher in a turnaround in ties after a series of disputes and differences.

Kong Xuanyou hinted at why China is now reaching out to Modi. "Both Xi and Modi have strategic vision and historic responsibility. They are both widely supported by their people and have devoted a lot of energy to this relationship," he told India Today.The idea behind the Wuhan summit was to provide the two leaders an informal atmosphere so that they "could have a wide-ranging conversation without a set agenda, lay a blueprint for the next 100 years, and move past Doklam", Kong added.

"Xi and Modi have met so many times at various bilateral and multilateral forums-every time they had good discussions, fostered a personal relationship and good working ties. But they both felt that there's still so much to say; so, we wanted to create this environment for heart-to-heart talk between friends," Kong further added.

Modi and Xi will have, at least, five rounds of extensive talks over Friday and Saturday. The summit will be wide-ranging without a set agenda, but more structured than previously thought: the two sides will also meet with their delegations of six officials each on Friday evening at the sprawling East Lake Guesthouse, where Xi is staying.

Modi's interactions with Xi, expected to stretch over 8-10 hours over two days, will begin on Friday afternoon with an intimate one-on-one tour of the Hubei provincial museum. It will be followed by talks between their delegations at the guesthouse followed by a dinner.

"The idea is to talk freely without a fixed agenda, and for both to agree on principles rather than talk over specific issues," an official said suggesting that specifics, whether Doklam or the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, won't figure in the discussions. "Once we agree on principles, the specifics can be taken up later," the official added.

Ahead of Modi's arrival, locals were abuzz about the unprecedented meeting. "We heard the news and are excited that both President Xi and Prime Minister Modi are coming to Wuhan," said Peter Zheng, a student waiting outside Modi's hotel in the heart of Wuhan. "It's a big event for the city," he said.

Indian medical students in Wuhan - there are over 20,000 - were also waiting for a glimpse of the PM. "I am so excited to know that our PM is coming here. So, I have been waiting outside his hotel all day," said Alwin from Kerala.

The Chinese media has already drawn parallels between the two-day summit and the meeting between late PM Rajiv Gandhi and Deng in 1988. "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," an op-ed in Global Times said. The usually anti-India Global Times said that "within China, hostility towards India is being replaced by hopes for friendly ties. The two countries need more communication to enhance mutual trust and eliminate the possibility of another border crisis". The tabloid blamed the West for several India-China conflicts. "Many conflicts between China and India broke out due to a lack of trust or at Western instigation like the border disputes and so-called dragon-elephant competition."

However, another official newspaper China Daily said that it remains to be seen whether the Modi-Xi summit "will live up to its billing as an unprecedented meeting" like the 1988 meeting between Rajiv and Deng. "Yet clearly both Beijing and New Delhi hope for something substantial from the upcoming two-day meeting," it said. "The 1988 visit by Rajiv Gandhi broke the ice," Gao said. "This will be another landmark visit because both India and China have changed a great deal over the years and face important challenges. The summit will likely cement the friendship between India and China and bring to a new height the relations between the two countries. I think it will hopefully eliminate the barriers and obstacles," he added.

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