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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived on Thursday in the historic city of Xian, at the start of a 3-day visit to China, and almost immediately he was taken by Chinese President Xi Jinping to the Wild Goose Pagoda that symbolise the two countries’ umbilical cultural ties, thus setting the tone for the important visit. Xian is where the ancient Silk Route began.

This Buddhist temple which is today a major tourist attraction in China, and where the Chinese Buddhist scholar monk Xuanzangspent, many years of his later life, translating some 35 volumes of Buddhist scriptures into Chinese that he collected during 16 years he spent at Nalanda University in India in the 7th century. It is these volumes that helped to spread Buddhism across much of East Asia and later helped Indian scholars to find out about Nalanda University after Muslim Turkic invaders burned Nalanda into ashes in the 12th century.

Thus these two-way civilizational exchanges or dialogues are significant milestones as Asia’s two leading civilizations led by two visionary leaders embark on building a new economic and cultural relationship that could transform the world.

China’s Xinhua news agency that usually reflects its government’s thinking said in a commentary on the eve of Modi’s arrival in China that this is the chance for the two Asian neighbours to consolidate trust. “The world’s two leading developing countries should become global partners for strategic coordination and jointly strive for a just and equitable international order,” it said.

Nirupama Rao, a former Indian ambassador to both China and the United States, and its Foreign Secretary from 2009-2011 seem to agree with that viewpoint.Writing in The Hindu, she noted that the India-China relationship in recent years has been marked by low levels of mutual trust and lack of knowledge of each other among people of both countries. “The two countries that gave the world Panchsheel (five precepts), cannot live in mutual exclusion,” argues Rao. “Indians and Chinese cannot be brothers, but they can be partners”.

Assistant Director and Fellow of the Institute of Chinese Studies in New Delhi, Jabin T. Jacob believes because of Modi’s considerable experience in dealing with China (as chief minister of Gujarat he made four trips to China) and despite different worldviews, the way he has gone about understanding China provides an unique opportunity for the two Asian powers to forge a global partnership.

“Modi appears to have a rather audacious politico-cultural agenda in his foreign policy,” noted Jacob. “He will continue India’s challenge to Chinese attempts to hijack the global Buddhist agenda”.

“The Indian Prime Minister has frequently and confidently highlighted India-China Buddhist links. Given China’s current political realities, references to Buddhism in the India-China context are likely to be the favoured method for Modi to highlight its Indian origins,” he argues.

India has been slow to response to China’s Silk Route initiatives, especially the ‘one belt, one road’concept promoted by Xi Jingping. If China’s economic focus could be supplemented by India’s cultural dimensions this project could redefine Asia’s identity and its economic potential in the 21st  century. Both sides seem to be warming to the idea.
During President  Xi Jingping’s visit to India in September last year, the two governments signed agreements to set up joint industrial parks, and now this is going to be extended to setting up cultural hubs in each other’s countries. To begin with India and China are to set up two sister-cultural parks in Beijing and Bengaluru (Bangalore). Buddhist studies, Yoga and Ayurveda are going to be in the curriculum at the park at Beijing Normal University.

A Buddhist renaissance is taking place in China argues Dana Schuppert, who has lived there for 23 years. Founder of the 21st Century China India Center for Culture and Communication, she is the driving force behind the cultural parks initiative, fully backed by the Chinese government.

“The cultural renaissance that we are experiencing under President Xi is a great Buddhist renaissance. Buddhism is number one together with Confucianism and Taoism. These are three schools of thought that shape the Chinese mindset. The distance this country has travelled from the trauma of the Cultural Revolution is unbelievable,” Schuppert noted in an interview with The Hindu.

She said that Modi’s visit is perfectly timed as the Chinese leadership has taken a ‘strategic decision’ to transform its relationship with India, and External Affairs Ministry is adopting Buddhism as part of its foreign policy toolkit. She has no doubt that the Chinese government will be able to achieve a ‘seamless synthesis’ of Marxism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism.

During an address at the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing on Friday, Modi announced the granting of e-visas to Chinese tourists adding that the Chinese and Indians needed to know more about each other.

While cultural links would help to bridge the mistrust between the two nations, especially at people-to-people level, economic links are what would make the relationship stronger. The Modi visit is expected to kickstart India’s lukewarm response to the China-Myanmar-Bangladesh-India economic corridor initiative of China, especially with India seeking Chinese help to modernise India’s rail network.

Thus, during the Modi visit the two sides signed a record 24 agreements that will cover development of railways, mining, outer space, earthquakes sciences and tourism.  India and China also vowed to work out a political solution to their border issues at the earliest, especially with regards to India’s Arunachal Pradesh State border with China.

“A partnership for development between India and China is a win-win partnership and neither side can lose in such a transaction,” argues Rao. “India, which has distances to cover in its development marathon, aims well to draw in investments and infrastructure,creating expertise from China. This is pragmatic and we must drop apprehensions of Chinese companies as Bond villains … unleashing viruses on people”.

India is a founding member of the China-initiated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and BRICS Bank both to be headquartered in Shanghai. On the eve of Modi’s visit to China, India nominated renowned banking expert K.V Kamath as its first president. Later in the year, India is expected to join another Chinese regional development initiative, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation that would also include Russia and other Eurasian nations.

All these initiatives are expected to have a profound impact on the global development and economic agenda, and India-China cooperation would be crucial to achieving its aims to cement Asia’s emergence at the center of a new global order.

“We have complemented each other in the past,” said Modi in an address in Shanghai to 22 Chinese CEOs,where he talked about 2000 years of knowledge and cultural flows between the two great civilizations. “As two major economies in Asia, the harmonious partnership between India and China is essential for economic development and political stability of the continent,”he added.