The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Virus cloud on George patch-up trip to China

New Delhi, April 16: The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome virus, which has already claimed over hundred lives, appears to have cast a shadow on defence minister George Fernandes’ proposed China visit scheduled to begin next week.

Indications suggest that South Block will take the final decision only after it goes through the Indian embassy’s report from Beijing giving the latest development on the virus.

The report is due within a day or two.

Unofficially, the weeklong visit, which has been planned between India and China for the past few weeks, will start from April 20.

Sources point out that at times media reports tend to sensationalise events. Hence, the Indian embassy has been asked to make an independent assessment and advise South Block on the visit.

Fernandes’ visit may go a long way in removing many obstacles that plague bilateral ties between the two sides. The defence minister’s description of China as “India’s potential enemy number one” in the run-up to the May 1998 Pokhran tests had severely damaged relations between the two Asian giants.

The fact that Fernandes has now decided to go to China shows a keenness on both sides to not only repair the damage, but also create an atmosphere of “trust and confidence” that would help strengthen bilateral relations between the two sides in the near future.

During his stay in China, the minister is scheduled to meet the top brass of the Chinese leadership and the defence establishment, including Jiang Zemin, chairman of China’s military commission, Hu Jintao, president of the country and vice-chairman of the military commission, defence minister Fu Quanyou and General Cao Gangchuan — the number three and four in its defence establishment.

The fact that China is lining up all these meetings is a clear indication of Beijing’s seriousness about the visit. It is, in fact, being seen more as a political one than as a defence minister’s.

The Chinese leadership realises that Fernandes is perhaps one of the most hardliners in the Indian establishment as far as the country’s relation with China is concerned.

The visit will also pave the way for Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s official visit to China later this year.

Developments in Iraq and the likely emerging scenario and other regional developments like North Korea will definitely come up for discussion.

But the main thrust will be on China’s military and defence cooperation with Pakistan.

Delhi has often argued that Sino-Indian relations cannot really grow unless Beijing ensures that it will not support Islamabad in nuclear and missile programmes, as they are directed against India.

There may also be some agreements on defence cooperation and exchange of military personnel.

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