The visit of the prime minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, to China will assume real significance if it manages to inject fresh momentum into Sino-Indian relations. Relations between India and China have often shown promise, but this latent potential has rarely translated into reality. Indeed, Sino-Indian relations, since the communist revolution in 1949, can be almost neatly divided into three phases. The first phase was one of unreal expectations, bordering on euphoria. This was the period of Panchsheel and Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai. There was a popular belief that these two Asian giants would together help to create a new international order. This expectation was, of course, shattered by differences over the border and the war of 1962. The second phase of bilateral relations, through the Sixties and Seventies, was characterized by bitterness, hostility and mutual suspicion. China began to symbolize enmity and there were occasions on which a war could have broken out again. The third phase began in the mid-Eighties and continues until today. The leadership of both the countries recognized that there was a convergence of interests even while several bilateral problems could not be easily resolved. The formula adopted was a pragmatic one. Those issues that could not be tackled now were put on the backburner even while advancing cooperation in areas of mutual interest. The relationship has proceeded moderately well, especially with the increase in trade and cultural exchanges. Confidence-building measures introduced since the late Eighties have managed to generate relative calm on the border. The only real dip in relations, during these years, followed the Indian nuclear tests of 1998, but relations stabilized fairly soon after the initial distancing.
There is a growing realization now, however, that without accommodation of bilateral irritants, the relationship cannot take off. From India’s point of view, China’s relationship with Pakistan, especially the continued reports of the supply of nuclear and missile technology to Islamabad, is the biggest source of friction. Moreover, Beijing’s non-recognition of Sikkim as a part of India and its intransigence with regard to the border problem, especially with regard to the western sector, clearly prevents New Delhi from having total confidence in the relationship. On the other hand, China clearly views India’s growing ties with the United States of America, the continued presence of the dalai lama and Tibetan refugees in India and New Delhi’s nuclear programme with suspicion. It remains to be seen now whether Mr Vajpayee’s visit can generate enough trust and momentum in order to begin a new era in Sino-Indian relations.