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Since 1st March, 1999
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Atal sniffs change in the air

Beijing, June 25: Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had it right when he said yesterday, almost in an aside: “There is a change in their (the Chinese leaders’) thinking.”

This was his only comment to Indian journalists during his visit to China so far about his new initiative to engage the Chinese.

Chinese analysts could not agree with Vajpayee more. Not given to issuing statements in a hurry or being carried away by events of the day, they have been rather unusual this time in frankly hailing the joint declaration by India and China as “pragmatic and forward-looking”.

Despite the obvious slant in the Chinese media, clearly derived from the official line, that the Indian “concession” on Tibet was a “victory”, its assessment of the declaration has been extraordinarily positive.

One would assume that the People’s Daily, the organ of the Chinese Communist Party, and most other state-controlled media would toe the official line of projecting the declaration and the agreement on border trade expansion as positive steps for better relations.

But even in private conversations, analysts of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (Cass) or the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (Cicir) enthusiastically described it as a “milestone” in new India-China relations.

“Vajpayee’s visit was a big step because it focused on cooperation and mutual benefit rather than the differences. It’s not like negotiations of (an) earlier period,” said Ma Jia Li, a senior researcher at the Cicir.

According to him, the two sides have realised that they could go ahead only if they respected three basic things — “respect for history, respect for actual situations on the ground and respect for the feelings of the people”.

An analyst of Cass, who however did not want to be identified, went even further, linking the new India-China engagement to Sino-Pak and India-Pakistan relations.

“The new situation of regional and global security, following the high-profile American presence in the region after 9/11, could actually mean that China would henceforth be more and more sensitive to India’s concerns about Sino-Pak relations.”

Even if a settlement of the border dispute remains in the realm of an uncertain future, Chinese experts seem to see in the declaration a desire on China’s part to settle it on the lines of give-and-take.

“This is how our leaders settled boundary disputes with the former Soviet Union and Vietnam,” he said.

In fact, the Cass analyst’s view on the Sikkim deal was different from the official Chinese line. “No matter what they say, the new trade route through Nathu-la means Chinese acceptance of Sikkim being a part of India. It’s only a matter of time before this becomes official.”

It isn’t easy to be so overtly optimistic in diplomatic relations, particularly if two big neighbouring countries have a history of hostility and suspicion as India and China have had. But both sides see a new note and hence a new hope.

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