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China softens on Sikkim

New Delhi, Dec. 26: China has proposed opening a tradepost at Nathu La in Sikkim in what could be the first step towards resolving a long-standing dispute between the neighbours over the northeastern state.

If Delhi accepts, the proposal will become an important confidence-building measure between India and China, especially before Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee’s proposed Beijing visit in mid-2003.

But opinion in the Indian establishment on the proposal is divided. While a section believes Delhi should agree to the tradepost, another advises caution.

Those opposed have argued that if Beijing is really keen on improving bilateral ties, it should not hesitate to recognise Sikkim as an “integral part” of India.

Some in the establishment argue that a prime ministerial visit to China — coming as it does after a decade — is a good opportunity for the two countries to sort out many long-standing disputes. A tradepost in Sikkim, they feel, is “too little, too late”.

Beijing, keen on Vajpayee’s visit, has so far not given any categoric assurance that it is willing to recognise Sikkim as part of India. Beijing has, instead, proposed the tradepost to show its flexibility.

Sikkim merged with India in 1975, becoming its 22nd state after a referendum overwhelmingly supported the move.

China — which took over Tibet in 1959 and has always regarded Sikkim as part of Tibet — disputed the Indian decision and called it “annexation”.

The two countries went to war in 1962 over the merger and Sikkim, among other areas in India’s eastern sector, has been the centre of a dispute since.

Vajpayee’s proposed visit is significant. If it takes place next year, it will be the first prime ministerial visit to China in nearly a decade. In 1993, P.V. Narasimha Rao became the last Indian Prime Minister to visit Beijing.

The importance being attached to Vajpayee’s visit can be traced not only to the time lag, but also to some of the developments that have taken place in the region and the rest of the world.

As engagement with China is important for India, it may, for the time being, accept the Chinese proposal for a tradepost to show that bilateral relations are on a roll.

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