The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Back in Beijing with hope & mask

Beijing, June 22: He had just boarded the plane for Beijing and smiling, came up to greet the accompanying journalists when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was reminded of the bitter end to his first visit to China as external affairs minister in 1979. He simply laughed it away.

In 1979, though, it was no laughing matter. Even as he had come here to initiate India’s first serious attempt at engaging China since the 1962 conflict between the two countries, Vajpayee was taken aback by China’s invasion of Vietnam in the midst of his negotiations with the Chinese leaders. He broke off the talks, cut short the trip and returned to New Delhi, bitterly disappointed with the Chinese intransigence.

Today was a different journey for him. Cheerful and obviously in better health than some months ago, the Prime Minister was hopeful of, if not a great leap forward, but a definitive forward movement in India’s relations with China.

But gloom of another kind accompanied him here even this evening. After bright weather for the last few days, Beijing skies were covered in thick, rolling clouds and occasional showers. Before the plane landed here, the turbulence shook the passengers badly. “Is it going to be a turbulent visit'” quipped a journalist.

After the turbulence, a scare. Passengers on Air-India One are used to champagne and caviar, delicious meals, other good things and exceptional care by the staff. But today, as they were taking leave of the staff after reaching Beijing, each of them had a gift they could not have liked — a small cloth SARS mask.

But that, for some of the Prime Minister’s team, symbolised his brave new China initiative. He has come to try and revive the days of Hindi-Chini bhai bhai in the time of SARS.

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