Xi Jinping, Jacob Zuma, Narendra Modi...India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, talks with China's President Xi Jinping, as South Africa's President Jacob Zuma looks on after they took their group photo for the BRICS summit in Fortaleza, Brazil, Tuesday, July 15, 2014. The leaders of the BRICS nations, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, are expected to officially create a bailout and development fund worth $100 billion. It's meant to be an alternative to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which are seen as being dominated by the U.S. and Europe. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)
Narendra Modi (left) and Xi Jinping at a Brics summit in 2014. The two leaders will meet at an impromptu informal summit on Friday © AP

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and Chinese president Xi Jinping will seek to patch up their country’s frayed ties at an impromptu summit on Friday, after one of the worst years for their relationship in decades.

Last year, troops from the two Asian giants were locked in a tense Himalayan border stand-off that lasted 72 days and raised fears of the potential for open conflict. While the crisis was defused peacefully, tensions and mutual suspicion have remained high. China has bristled at India’s criticism of its high-priority Belt-and-Road initiative, Mr Xi’s signature foreign policy initiative.

New Delhi is watching with alarm as Beijing increases its economic influence over India’s immediate neighbours, and steps up its military presence in the Indian Ocean, even as it strengthens strategic ties with China’s rivals, Japan and the US. 

The two days of informal talks — in a lakeside compound where Mao Zedong had a holiday villa in the city of Wuhan — are being described as a chance for the two leaders to clear the air, and set a course for more positive engagement, amid growing international turbulence. 

“The main purpose of the meeting is to bring China-India relations out from under last year’s dark cloud,” said Wang Dehua, an expert on Sino-India relations at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies. Abhijit Singh, a maritime policy expert at New Delhi’s Observer Research Foundation, says Mr Modi’s administration is eager to “recalibrate” relations with China to avoid any major strategic confrontations, especially with India’s national elections next year. 

“India realises there is no way that it can live with so many differences with China,” said Mr Singh. “It needs to find a modus vivendi.” 

Indian officials say there is no fixed agenda; instead, the two leaders will have a free-flowing, one-on-one discussion to better understand each other’s priorities and concerns, amid growing anxiety in New Delhi about policy and personnel turmoil in Washington DC under US president Donald Trump. 

In a goodwill gesture to its more powerful neighbour, India recently discouraged the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, from holding a large public rally in New Delhi to commemorate the 60th anniversary of a failed anti-China uprising in Tibet. “This is essentially a tactical move,” Mr Singh said of the summit. “At this point in time, it makes sense to emphasise commonalities.” 

But, he added that “China is playing from a position of strength and India is at a disadvantage. It’s the Chinese who are making their presence felt in our neighbourhood.” 

Mr Modi has repeatedly displayed a taste for highly personalised diplomacy, involving long one-on-one interactions with world leaders in picturesque settings. But these interactions have not always delivered results.

Just months after his election as premier in 2014, Mr Modi welcomed Mr Xi, his first important foreign visitor, to his hometown Ahmedabad. There, the two sat on a traditional Indian swing alongside the Sabarmati River, discussing potential Chinese investments in India. But the atmosphere soured when hundreds of Chinese troops crossed the disputed India-China border, triggering an embarrassing stand-off with Indian soldiers during the presidential visit. It marked the onset of what has proven to be a three-year period of declining ties.

Few analysts expect any dramatic breakthroughs out of this summit. “The fundamentals have not really changed,” said Andrew Small, an expert in Chinese foreign policy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “There is an understanding on both sides that they are heading into a period of intensifying competition across different spheres.” 

But Mr Small said the Doklam crisis showed the countries needed to manage their differences better to avoid frictions escalating dangerously. He said the two countries could also find common ground for collaboration, for example, with specific belt-and-road infrastructure projects with tangible benefits for India. 

“It’s clearly valuable for the two sides to be able to manage the competition more effectively and transact in areas where the two sides share interests,” said Mr Small. “In a better environment, there is scope to do deals with China.”

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