China Power

Modi’s First Stop in China: Why Xi’an?

China and India are hoping to use personal chemistry and ancient history to bolster their relationship.

Modi’s First Stop in China: Why Xi’an?
Credit: Flickr/ MEAphotogallery

Indian Prime Minster Narendra Modi is in China for his first visit since assuming office (though he was a frequent visitor to China during his time as Gujarat’s chief minister). As Ankit noted in his preview of the trip, Modi’s itinerary is somewhat unusual. Rather than traveling directly to Beijing, Modi’s first stop is Xi’an, in central China’s Shaanxi Province. Even more unusual was the fact that Chinese President Xi Jinping traveled to Xi’an to welcome Modi to China — the first time he’s done so for a foreign leader.

Everything on the itinerary of a state visit is crafted with a political purpose. As Xinhua put it, Xi’an “was a carefully orchestrated choice” for the Modi-Xi meeting. So what makes Xi’an so special?

First of all, Xi’an is Xi’s hometown. In that regard, having Modi stop in Xi’an first purposefully echoes Xi’s visit to India last September, when he visited Modi’s home province of Gujarat before heading to New Delhi. In both cases, the idea is to emphasize (or at least provide the illusion of) personal connections between the two leaders before moving on to the formalities that accompany any state visit. Chinese media emphasized the rarity of Xi meeting a foreign leader outside of Beijing and Xi himself said he had never before welcomed a foreign leader in Xi’an.

In a fortuitous coincidence, however, Xi’an, in addition to its ties to Xi, is of special importance for China-India relations specifically. In ancient China, Xi’an (then known as Chang’an) was the capital for Chinese dynasties, and thus an important nexus for trade and cultural interactions between Chinese and Indian cultures. China’s ancient history was on display as Modi visited the famous Terracotta Warriors Museum, home of the tomb of China’s first emperor. Even the welcome ceremony for Modi was historical, done in the style of China’s Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE).

Perhaps the most famous single example of ancient China-India ties is the Buddhist monk Xuanzang (c. 602 – 664 CE), whose 17-year pilgrimage to India provided the inspiration for the famous Chinese novel Journey to the West. He, too, has ties to Xi’an — Xuanzang began his historic journey to India from Chang’an. When Xuanzang returned to Chang’an with Buddhist sutras and relics, the city became an important center for Chinese Buddhism. Modi and Xi nodded to this historical legacy by visiting Xi’an’s Wild Goose Pagoda, where the relics and sutras Xuanzang brought from India were housed. On his Twitter account, Modi posted a picture of a small gift he had received at the pagoda: a figurine of Xuanzang and a framed picture of the Buddha with the message: “Water The Friendship Between India and China With Oriental Wisdom.”

This appeal to “oriental wisdom” is, in a nutshell, why Modi is in Xi’an. In their previous conversations, both Modi and Xi have attempted to use history to overcome modern-day tensions in the relationship. They frequently reference China and India’s long histories and point to cultural interactions (particularly the influence of Buddhism) as creating a cultural affinity even today. During Xi’s trip to India last year, Modi even called China and India “two bodies with one spirit.” By appealing to historic affinities and Asian identities, both leaders hope to find common ground for their countries despite strategic tensions and a long-standing border dispute.

Despite a heavy focus on the cultural during Modi’s stay in Xi’an, the city also hosted serious talks between Modi and Xi. According to India’s Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar, the two leaders held “very substantive talks,” covering everything from the border dispute and India’s concerns over Chinese investment in Pakistan to broader regional issues such as terrorism. Jaishankar said “there was a lot of discussion on strengthening trust and increasing convergence” between India and China, and that “the atmosphere [of the summit] was very comfortable.”