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Great leap through Sikkim pass

Beijing, June 23: Pragmatism finally won the day after hard-nosed bargaining at the India-China talks here today.

It was symbolised in China accepting trade through the Indian outpost at Nathu-la. This means China’s de facto acceptance of Sikkim’s accession to India.

Taking the recent steps in bilateral engagement farther, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his Chinese counterpart, Wen Jiabao, signed a joint declaration here this evening on “principles for relations and comprehensive cooperation” between the two countries.

Even as details of the joint declaration, as well as a border trade agreement, are awaited tomorrow, the opening of Nathu-la after 40 years implies that India can also have a presence in Tibet.

The agreement’s small step in Sikkim is seen in Indian circles as the big leap forward in future dealings with China. “We don’t want to appropriate that Chinese phrase. But you could say that’s what has been achieved here this time,” said a senior Indian diplomat on the agreement’s reference to Sikkim.

The spirit of the declaration goes much beyond this. It shows that instead of bargaining on the historical baggage, the as-is-where-is formula could be the basis of resolution of other problems, particularly those with Pakistan. Sources say that New Delhi would be willing to solve the problem about the Line of Control with Pakistan on the same basis.

Although the Indian side was somewhat hesitant about highlighting the importance of the agreement on Sikkim, this is clearly the high point of the India-China engagement. It is also the high point of Vajpayee’s China initiative this time.

If there was a quid pro quo on the Sikkim front, it was on Tibet, where India reaffirmed China’s supremacy over the Tibet autonomous region but made a diplomatic point by not accepting the Chinese claim to the Tibetan region which was ceded to it by Pakistan.

The declaration, according to Wen, signals a “new age” in India-China relations. It was time the two countries “phased out” their “historical differences”, he said while the two leaders met after the ceremonial welcome to Vajpayee at the Great Hall of the People this morning.

The Indian Prime Minister hoped the discussions would be held with “openness and frankness, as between friends”. The joint declaration formulates a “blueprint for further cooperation in all fields”.

Although P.V. Narasimha Rao’s visit in 1993 — the last by an Indian Prime Minister — resulted in an agreement on maintaining “peace and tranquillity” on the India-China border, there was no joint declaration.

The details of the declaration are likely to be announced tomorrow after Vajpayee meets Chinese President Hu Jintao and his predecessor Jiang Zemin for a crucial round of negotiations.

The two Prime Ministers also discussed the contentious border issues, but there seems little hope of any substantive progress on that front during Vajpayee’s visit here. The discussions will continue, foreign minister Yashwant Sinha told visiting Indian journalists, adding that there were “no attempts to paper over or whitewash any issue”. But the two sides appear keen to go ahead on other issues even if the boundary dispute remains unresolved.

At the delegation talks, nine other memoranda of understanding were signed..

Thanks to another protocol, the Chinese could soon get a taste of Indian mangoes. But in matters Chinese, a small step can actually mean a big leap forward.

Mangoes will now be the first of 17 fruits and vegetables from India whose exports to China figured in the discussions during former Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji’s visit to New Delhi in January 2002.

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