| Indian and Chinese national flags flutter side by side in front of the Tiananmen Gate in Beijing before Vajpayee’s arrival. (AFP)
Beijing, June 22: Timing it with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s arrival here this evening on a five-day official visit, China today introduced a new element to the forthcoming negotiations on the border dispute, saying that it would discuss it on an “equal footing”.
If this means a positive change in China’s attitude, Vajpayee’s visit — the first by an Indian Prime Minister in 10 years — could mark a new beginning in the troubled relations between the two Asian giants.
Before his departure from New Delhi, Vajpayee hoped that his visit would help build better understanding and trust. “There is a compelling geographical, political and economic logic” for closer relations, he said.
External affairs ministry officials accompanying Vajpayee said this could mean a positive shift from the earlier Chinese position of negotiating the contentious border issue in a spirit of “mutual understanding and mutual accommodation”.
The new Chinese initiative — or, at least, the new language — came in an interview Prime Minister Wen Jiabao gave to sections of the Indian media on the eve of Vajpayee’s visit.
While Indian officials took note of the Chinese whispers, they were hesitant to make these the basis for pitching expectations high.
Despite initiating a process and laying down certain modalities for discussions on the dispute, the two countries have not gone far. Not much headway has been made either in defining the 4,056-km line of actual control or in narrowing down differences on the crucial western sector.
In the eastern sector, too, there has been little progress on the controversy emanating from the Chinese claim on the whole of Arunachal Pradesh. Some progress was, however, made in the negotiations over disputes in the central sector in Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh.
While Indian officials do not hope for a border breakthrough, there is expectation that Sikkim may offer a road ahead. China is the only country in the world which has not so far recognised Sikkim’s accession to India in 1975.
The hope for a new Chinese initiative on Sikkim is based on the fact that China wants India to open the trade route through Nathu-la in Sikkim and Kalimpong in Bengal to Tibet. This route greatly reduces the distance for border trade.
It is unlikely, though, Vajpayee’s visit will see a resolution of this issue unless — or, even if, as some analysts say — China recognises Sikkim.
Indian officials indicated that India might not raise its concerns about Chinese defence assistance to Pakistan during Vajpayee’s meetings here with Wen or President Hu Jintao. India does not want Sino-Pakistani relations to get in the way.
But hopes are running high in the Indian camp on trade, which has soared by over 70 per cent in the past one year and touched $5 billion.