By Victor Mallet
Hours before the two governments signed 12 agreements on trade, railways and planned Chinese investments of $20bn over the next five years, India’s foreign ministry said Mr Modi had raised the issue of incursions in recent days by Chinese troops across the disputed border known as the Line of Actual Control.
It was not immediately clear if this latest incident in the Himalayas – apparently one of the most serious for years – was the result of a show of strength by Beijing to coincide with Mr Xi’s visit or arose from more aggressive patrolling by the Indian army on the orders of the nationalist Mr Modi.
Indian media quoted officials as saying hundreds of Chinese soldiers had crossed the line and were faced with Indian forces at Chumar, Ladakh in the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Until the confrontation became public on Thursday, the two sides had focused on economic ties for the benefit of their combined 2.6bn inhabitants, particularly through billions of dollars of potential Chinese investment in Indian infrastructure projects.
Mr Xi’s visit was heralded by politicians in New Delhi and business leaders in Mumbai as a historic opportunity for the world’s two most populous nations to build a mutually beneficial economic relationship. After meeting Mr Xi, Mr Modi announced that China would build industrial parks in Gujarat and Maharashtra and invest $20bn overall in the next five years.
But the culmination of Mr Xi’s trip was overshadowed by the military confrontation. Sameer Patil, associate fellow at Gateway House, an Indian foreign policy think-tank, said the reported incursions were “a gentle reminder to India that ‘we still have these territorial claims’ ”.
Such incursions have happened before to coincide with Chinese visits to India. However, analysts say the newly elected Mr Modi seems to have ordered a more robust response than his predecessors, sending up to 1,000 troops to Chumar to confront the Chinese.
“The only thing which has happened this time is that the Indian response may have taken the Chinese side by surprise,” says Mr Patil. “I think he [Mr Modi] is being assertive.”
Before his visit, the Chinese leader had praised India as “an enchanting and beautiful land” and said New Delhi and Beijing had made progress in negotiations over their 4,000km border.
Both Mr Xi and Mr Modi alluded to the still unresolved border confrontation in public statements after their meeting.
During an election campaign visit to the Himalayan Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh this year, Mr Modi sharply criticised China – which claims Arunachal as its own – and said Beijing “should shed its expansionist policy”.
China defeated India in a border war on two fronts in 1962 and has since increased its military and economic advantage over its south-western neighbour.
Meanwhile, scores of India-based Tibetan protesters demonstrated against Mr Xi outside Hyderabad House in New Delhi where Mr Modi and Mr Xi were meeting, before several of them were detained and taken away in a bus by police.
“We want free Tibet,” shouted one young woman waving a Tibetan flag from the window of the bus. India has been home to the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader, since he fled in 1959, nine years after Chinese troops invaded Tibet.
The Dalai Lama – who wants autonomy for Tibet within China but is dismissed as a “splittist” by Beijing – said in New Delhi that Mr Xi was “more realistic, more open-minded” than his predecessors and could therefore learn from India’s success as a multilingual, multicultural nation.
“Sino-Indian relations [are] very important,” he said. “The present problem is a problem in India. Before 1950, the whole northern border [of India] was very peaceful.”