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China's Xi and India's Modi Talk Up Trade, but Turn Aside Touchy Topics

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10/12/2019 | 09:18am EDT

By Rajesh Roy

NEW DELHI--The leaders of China and India wrapped up two days of meetings at a resort town in southern India by agreeing to find ways to step up trade, but they steered clear of thornier matters such as Kashmir and the 5G data prospects of Chinese powerhouse Huawei Technologies Co.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping spent nearly six hours in one-on-one meetings in the seaside town of Mamallapuram for the second of what the countries have billed as "informal" summits. The leaders of the world's two most populous nations use the time to take in tourist sites and carry on freewheeling private discussions designed more to build rapport than resolve difficult issues between the Asian powers.

Their last such meeting--18 months ago in Wuhan, China--came after a confrontation between the two countries' militaries near their disputed border in the Himalayan mountains.

Neither side offered details of the Mamallapuram meetings, but India's Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale told reporters Saturday that both had agreed to set up a formal diplomatic mechanism for senior ministers to address India's ballooning trade deficit with China and to identify areas for investments in each others' manufacturing industries. "China is ready to take sincere steps," he said.

India has had a large trade deficit with China for several years. New Delhi wants greater access for its agricultural produce, electronic goods and pharmaceuticals in the Chinese market, which has largely been restricted, according to an Indian trade ministry official who asked not to be named. In 2018-19 fiscal year ended March, India's trade deficit with China was about $54 billion, according to government data.

Mr. Xi, meanwhile, expressed confidence that the talks would improve communication on security and military matters. "We engaged in a candid discussion as friends in this heart-to-heart discussion on bilateral relations," he said Saturday.

Delhi has in recent years expressed concern over Beijing's push to develop major land and maritime trade routes near India through Mr. Xi's signature Belt-and-Road initiative, a program to develop trade and infrastructure links between China and much of the world.

The initiative includes projects passing through territory controlled by Pakistan in Kashmir, which both India and Pakistan claim. India has thus far refused to endorse the Belt-and-Road program, though many other governments in the region have signed on.

For its part, China was irked by India's move in August to split the disputed northern state of Jammu and Kashmir in two, making its Ladakh region--part of which is claimed by Beijing--a separate Indian administrative territory. The topic was expected to come up during the summit, but Mr. Gokhale said it wasn't discussed.

In another surprise, the two leaders also avoided Huawei's 5G mobile-data aspirations in India, according to Mr. Gokhale.

The U.S. has been pressing allies to avoid using Huawei equipment in 5G rollouts over potential security risks, while China considers the company a national champion and has been lobbying for it via various channels. India hasn't decided whether to allow Huawei to participate in its 5G plans.

While the summit didn't break new ground, it continued the effort on both sides to keep the complicated relationship between Asia's two fast rising powers on an even keel, experts said. "The two countries are just trying to manage each other, realizing their limits," said Harsh Pant, a professor of international studies at King's College London. "I don't think any fundamental altering is likely in the bilateral relationship, which remains competitive and conflictual."

Write to Rajesh Roy at rajesh.roy@wsj.com

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