Signals Behind Symbolism – Ahmedabad to Mamallapuram via Wuhan

pm modi and president xi

“All diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means.” – Zhou Enlai, first Premier of the People’s Republic of China

Places of visits of leaders of countries are significant in the foreign policy of a government as these places provide context – historical, geographical, cultural and political. They silently convey larger messages to visiting parties as not everything can be explicitly talked about due to diplomatic niceties. It also allows using histories to overcome modern-day tensions in international relations.

In this context, if we look through prism of history at the various places of visits of PM Modi and Xi Jinping, the Chinese President and Chairman of the Central Military Commission of China, there seem to be certain subtle messages and signals conveyed through larger optics in media.

It began from the land of Mahatma Gandhi

Consider, visit of President Xi to Ahmedabad (17-19 September 2014) in Gujarat, the home state of PM Modi where he served as Chief Minister. It was perhaps the first time Indian PM received a high-profile head of state outside New Delhi. Both leaders took stroll on the Sabarmati waterfront, sat on traditional jhoola. They visited Sabarmati Ashram, spun together on Charkha.

Symbolism and Message

Signifying design of a new relationship at places of Gandhiji who is known for his non-violence, truth and courage, it was certainly an attempt to convey the values India cherishes. Posters in Ahmedabad to welcome president Xi were explicit in message from India – “Working together for common prosperity”.

However, during the visit, ongoing Chumar-Demchok stand-off conveying desire to incrementally change the status quo to China’s advantage was not missed by PM Modi. He raised serious concerns with the President and status quo was restored. Subsequently, India’s Look East policy transformed into Act East focussing on the extended neighbourhood in the Indo-Pacific region bordering China.

Xian symbolising historical legacy and Chinese hegemony

Next year, 14-15 May 2015, President Xi perhaps reciprocated the gesture during PM Modi’s visit to Xian (ancient Chang’an), Xi’s hometown. President Xi welcomed PM Modi at Xian, the first time he has done so for a foreign leader outside Beijing. Xian was the capital of ancient dynasties like Tang dynasty.  The warm welcome of PM was followed by his visit to the Terracotta Warriors Museum. Both leaders visited Wild Goose Pagoda where Buddhist sutras and relics brought by traveller Xuanzang (or Hiuen Tsang) from India were housed – a message for historical legacy.

Symbolism and Message

If we look at history Tang dynasty it had political hegemony, cultural influence over neighbouring East Asian states like Korea and Japan. They had large trade along Silk Route. They had captured the vital route for access to Silk Route through the Gilgit Valley. Tibetans posed a major challenge to them. In 779 AD the Tang dynasty issued an edict which forced Uighurs to follow certain guidelines. Moreover, the Tang dynasty had a strong Chinese maritime presence spreading up to Persian Gulf, Red Sea, Egypt and Horn of Africa and beyond. Won’t they sound like present-day Chinese activities under the Belt and Road Initiative and in Tibet, Xinjiang provinces?

PM Modi received a gift at the pagoda with a message – “Water The Friendship Between India and China With Oriental Wisdom” – a subtle message for PM to stay away from the Western powers.

The Terracotta Army is a collection of terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of unified China. During the emperor’s reign, his generals greatly expanded the size of the Chinese state. He enacted major economic and political reforms aimed at the standardization of the diverse practices of the earlier Chinese states. The emperor also developed an extensive network of roads and canals connecting the provinces to improve trade.

A closer look at President Xi’s reforms in China, “Chinese dream”, his ambition to be next like Mao surely were the messages read by the Indian diplomats. Moreover, the contrasting symbolism behind the visit to Sabarmati Ashram of non-violent Gandhi and the Terracotta Army representing hegemony are clear.

On 17th May 2015, PM Modi was in Mongolia, northern neighbour of China, the first-ever visit by an Indian Prime Minister. Mongolia is an integral part of India’s Act East Policy. Numerous pacts were inked between both the Nations for advancing peace, stability and prosperity in the region placing high importance cooperation in border security and cybersecurity. “Convergence of Buddhism and democracy provides us a path to build an Asia of peace and cooperation, harmony and equality”, said the PM Modi.

Glitches in the smooth road to improved relations

During 2016 and 2017 both leaders met at various places on the sidelines of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), BRICS summits. Discussions were carried out in the backdrop of Chinese opposition to NSG membership to India, its veto against the ban on Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar and the passing of planned China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) through PoK – support to its ‘all-weather friend’ Pakistan.

Come 9 June 2017, India joined Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). “Astana consensus” was reached that differences should not be allowed to become disputes. Doklam standoff in July 2017 was a firm assertion from India that it will not bog under the hegemony of China.

PM Modi personally took up the issue with President Xi post the G-20 summit at Hamburg and stand-off was resolved. Among others, the idea of “talking to each other” rather than “talking at each other” led to Wuhan “informal” summit. Informal summits are a rare gesture from China honoured to leaders like President of USA, Barak Obama.

Wuhan, a symbolism against Western imperialism

The Wuhan summit was timely in the context of an ongoing negative narrative about the Indo-China relationship. The positive direction of India-China relationship opened up a new world of convergence. The highest political leaders from both sides exchanged views in one-to-one meeting with no agreed agenda. Both leaders were on a boat ride in the East Lake in Wuhan. In a special gesture, Chinese President Xi took PM Modi on a tour of the exhibition of Marquis Yi of Zeng Cultural Relics and Treasure displayed at the Hubei Provincial Museum.

Symbolism and Message

Wuhan was witness to the establishment of the Republic of China was in 1911 after Wuchang uprising throwing away Quing dynasty. Communists in Wuhan had close relations with Soviet Russia and played important role in defeat of imperial Japan. Wuhan was bombed by American bombers against Japan, killing thousands of Chinese civilians. Wuhan hosts several museums and memorials thousands of martyrs of Xinhai revolution.

Today, Wuhan is known as “the Chicago of China” promoting modern industrial changes in China attracting investments from nearly 230 Fortune Global 500 firms, investments from 230 Fortune Global 500 firms.

Perhaps, President Xi wanted to convey PM Modi about the sacrifices for China preserved in the museums and its resolve against Western imperialism. And off course the tremendous industrial development under Communist rule! Both leaders sailing in the same boat for peace, prosperity and development! – the “Wuhan spirit”.

Given the history of relations with China, the next strategically logical step for India was greater engagement with South-East Asia furthering Act East policy. PM Modi was on with three-nation visit to Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore during May 2018 to deepen ties. Countries have concerns about Chinese activities in South China Sea – part of Indo-Pacific. Recently, Chinese actions after inoperability of Article 370 were cause of concern for India. The next informal summit at Mamallapuram gives opportunity to discuss and resolve any doubts.

Mamallapuram – Chariots of warrior Pandavas and panels depicting fierce battles

Xuanzang began his journey is Xian and must have visited Mamallapuram during his visit to Kanchipuram in 640 AD. Some of the details are covered in the earlier article. Tamil song at a cultural event welcoming President Xi at Mamallapuram invoked peace and Mahatma Gandhi. The program ended with instrumental rendition of Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite ‘Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram’. Both leaders visited panel of Arjuna’s penance, Panch Rathas of warrior Pandava and Shore temples.

Symbolism and Message

The temples also got support from Cholas who had extensive trade relations with South East Asia (kind of “Act East Policy”!). Both PM Modi and President Xi can be seen with the magnificent view of Bay of Bengal, also known as the Chola lake honouring the great Cholas!

The five chariots of Pandavas are of great warriors of Mahabharata. Notably other panels like of Devi, Varaha depict fiery battle scenes. The famous panel of Arjuna’s penance shows God Shiva giving the weapon to Arjuna to fight enemies. Interestingly, the panel also depicts a cat sitting in penance like Arjuna but adoring mice. Zhou Enlai, first Premier of the People’s Republic of China had visited Mamallapuram in 1956. Intentions of penancing cat are quite clear! Recently India inducted Rafale for its defence.

Surely, the message is that India cherishes values of non-violent Gandhi but also has valour of warriors. The symbolism began from the land of Mahatma Gandhi reached to the battle scenes.

Further, taking off from the Wuhan Spirit, the Chennai connect will continue to chart the future course of India-China partnership. Direct contacts between the leadership have been instrumental in consolidating strategic communication. There are certain signals behind communication through symbolism especially when diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means.

  • Apoorv

    Great article giving background and comprehensive information. Historical references make it even more interesting
    . Thanks


    Very well articulated article helping people understand diplomacy, diplomatic efforts taken up by the government to next level.

    It is said that Non verbal communication is more powerful than Verbal communication. Hope China has grasped the crystal message apart from enjoying Indian hospitality.