After extending the hand of peace to arch-foe Pakistan, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's planned follow-up visit to old-enemy China could redraw the diplomatic map of a region that is of acute interest to Washington after the Iraq war.
The major players -- India, China and Pakistan -- bristle with nuclear arms, and Vajpayee's peace plays may be aimed not only at ensuring a place in the history books for the elderly politician but reducing the risk of a nightmare conflict among longtime foes with weapons trained on India from north and west.
The shifts in bilateral ties among the trio as well as in their relationships with the US since the Cold War, plus a big nudge from the Sept. 11 attacks, are starting to alter dramatically diplomatic patterns unchanged for decades.
"Diplomacy is back in business in South Asia," wrote Washington-based South Asia expert Paula Newberg earlier this month.
If Vajpayee goes to China next month it will be the first such visit by an Indian prime minister in a decade and comes after Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji (
The visit would unsettle old China friend Pakistan, putting pressure on President Pervez Musharraf as he ponders Vajpayee's surprise offer last month to give peace a chance after the nuclear neighbors narrowly averted war last year.
"India is also interested in reducing the number of potential foes during this `war on terror,'" said Sanjay Ganguly, professor of Asian studies and government at the University of Texas in Austin. That is of concern to China, too, as it worries Islamic militants are slipping over the border from Pakistan and stirring resentment in its restive Muslim western region of Xinjiang.
"Simultaneously, Vajpayee may just be interested in seeing if he can, to any degree, wean China away from Pakistan," he said.
"This is a tall order given the long-standing relationship between those two states, China's misgivings about Islamic militancy in Xinjiang notwithstanding."
It may be a tall order, but not as tall as trying to resolve the territorial disputes that triggered a war between India and China in 1962. To this day, the two have failed to agree even on mapping out their border.
Vajpayee will make no progress there when he meets new Chinese leaders President Hu Jintao (
"The current pattern is to try to improve trade and political relationships. Territorial problems, nuclear issues are not going to get resolved," said Indian defense analyst Uday Bhaskar. "But symbolism in China acquires a certain substantive dimension."
One Chinese expert said the visit was more than symbolic. "Maintaining high-level political contact furthers understanding between these two big countries," said Sun Shihai, a South Asia expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.
The two may have agreed to put such intractable disputes on the back burner while they confront issues of the day -- boosting trade, reducing military tensions and the consequent drain on budgets, and altering the balance of power in the region.
A rapidly prospering China and greater attention from the US are factors affecting that balance.
"I've always argued that it made more sense for India to normalize with Pakistan than China, separating the two by being nice to Pakistan. But it takes two to tango," said South Asia expert Stephen Cohen of the Brookings Institute in Washington.