When True Friends Meet In Mahaballipuram
Even A Thousand Cups Of Tea Are Not Enough

Raman Swamy

Even though he belongs to an ancient civilization himself, President Xi Jinping is bound to be impressed by the marvels of Mahaballipuram.  
During his sight-seeing trip to this temple town in Tamil Nadu this weekend, the Chinese supreme leader will get a glimpse of the architectural genius of the Pallava dynasty which ruled in southern India more than 12 centuries ago.  

He will see the amazing Panch Rathas carved out of solid rock, the spectacular Shore Temple overlooking the Bay of Bengal and the incomparable ‘Arjuna’s Penance’ monument that tells the story of the Descent of the Ganga in carvings on two boulders which are too big to be captured in a photograph and have to be seen and savoured by the naked eye.

President Xi will be staying in contrasting modern splendor at Chennai’s ITC Grand Chola during his two-night sojourn in India for informal talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Unless the schedule is changed for any reason – climatic, security or political – he is slated to travel 60 kilometers by road to Mahaballipuram, as a potent reminder that like China, India too is a land with rich cultural heritage. 

During the recent grand celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Xi spoke proudly of his country’s “indelible contribution to civilisation and the advancement of mankind” over 5,000 years.   

He quoted an old Chinese saying:  "A long journey can be covered only by taking one step at a time".  Perhaps to underscore the profound wisdom of those words, he came out with two more sayings from other lands - an Arab proverb which says that the Pyramid was built by piling one stone on another; and the more common ‘Rome was not built in a day”.

So much triple emphasis on this one point has got to mean something.  What was he trying to say?  That China is a land of infinite patience?  That nothing can be achieved in a hurry? 

During his talks with Narendra Modi will XI Jinping repeat those words of wisdom?  Since the meeting is being described as ‘informal’ and the talks are said to be ‘unstructured’, the Chinese leader might well take the liberty to impart some friendly advice.  

Even though, at 66, Xi Jinping is three years younger than his host, he has certain advantages.   First of all, he is Supreme Leader of China for Life.  Modi only gets five years in office at a time before having to face another election.  

Already, in Modi’s second term, the first five months have been rather bumpy because of the sluggish economy, with things likely to become worse before they get any better due to what the new IMF chief has called “synchronized slowdown”.   

The point being that Xi must have closely watched what Modi has been doing:   holding Donald Trump’s hand in public, trying to crush militancy in Kashmir by sending the military, buying Rafael warplanes and making five trillion dollar promises.   

What advice should Xi give?  Should he come out with a series of diplomatically phrased wise Chinese proverbs?  

Such as:  Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid only of standing still;  

Or, It takes more than one cold day for the river to freeze three feet deep;

Or, Do not choose the one you don’t trust and trust the one you chose; 

Or, Never make promises you know you cannot keep. 

The problem is that Xi Jinping is probably well aware that for every good Chinese adage, there is an equivalent one in Sanskrit or Tamil.  The distilled wisdom of both ancient civilizations is remarkably similar.  This only proves that the scholars and kings who ruled China and India centuries ago were truly gifted with deep insights into both human behavior and the tenets of good governance.

Logically, as descendents of sages and as neighbours since eternity, the Chinese and the Indians should have had much in common and many areas of perfect understanding and agreement.  

But that is not the case.  Strangely enough, the two countries, and their rulers,  are on parallel wave-lengths, seldom if ever meeting in concurrence.   In the present-day context, the areas of agreement seem to be far fewer than the points of discord and mutual suspicion.  

On Pakistan, the policy doctrines are too starkly divergent to need elaboration, except to note that just before travelling to Chennai, President Xi Jinping assured Prime Minister Imran Khan that the friendship between China and Pakistan is "unbreakable and rock-solid" despite changes in the international and regional situation. 

On relations with the United States, China is currently embroiled in a trade war which appears to be escalating with each passing month whereas Modi is still basking in the glory of his Houston bromance and is even getting himself an Air Force One special aircraft just like the American president.   
On the Belt and Road initiative, which is so intrinsic to Xi Jinping’s vision of the future, India repeatedly refuses to even attend meetings and just recently India’s Foreign Minister ruled out any re-think on the ground that it violates India’s sovereignty by passing through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and also lacks transparency about its ultimate motives. 

In spite of all this, and much more that has created a great wall between the two great countries, there is a great deal of optimism that the Chennai parleys will be at least as momentous as the Wuhan interaction.   There is an outside chance that after viewing the marvels of Mahaballipuram the Chinese leader’s heart may soften towards India and Prime Minister Modi may suddenly realize that friendship with China might be the best policy. 

That however is unlikely to happen.  As the Chinese proverb says:  ‘A thousand cups of tea are not enough when true friends meet,  but even half a sentence is too much when there is no meeting of minds’.

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Oct 12, 2019

Raman Swamy [email protected]

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