Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's recent visit to China, the first such visit by an Indian prime minister in almost a decade, may well prove to be a turning point in Sino-Indian relations.
The visit marked important progress in the bilateral relationship. Beijing and New Delhi signed a joint declaration on principles for relations and comprehensive cooperation, a memorandum of understanding on opening border trade, and a series of bilateral agreements covering cultural, educational, and scientific/technological cooperation.
While no major breakthrough was achieved during Vajpayee's visit -- and indeed no such expectation had ever been entertained -- there was nevertheless significant progress in four areas that deserves closer scrutiny.
The first is growing consensus and converging interest between Beijing and New Delhi over a wide range of bilateral, regional and global issues. The two countries vow not to view each other as a security threat and reaffirm their determination to resolve their disputes through peaceful means. This is a far cry from the suspicions and hostility between the two Asian powers in the wake of India's May 1998 nuclear tests.
This stabilizing and maturing relationship is clearly marked by the two countries' converging interests in developing a fair, equitable international political and economic order, the role for the UN and support of global arms control processes, including efforts to prevent the weaponization of outer space.
Second, by each appointing a special representative to oversee the political framework of border negotiation, the two countries have clearly demonstrated their determination to speed up the process of resolving the territorial disputes. This reflects a consensus reached by Chinese and Indian leaders that to reach the full potential of bilateral relations requires the satisfactory -- and the sooner the better -- closure of this issue.
Third, China and India have made important -- although largely token -- gestures toward each other. New Delhi has shown greater appreciation of Beijing's sensitivity over the Tibetan issue by affirming for the first time that the Tibetan Autonomous Region is part of the territory of China. Beijing, on the other hand, has acquiesced in Sikkim being a state of India through the memorandum of understanding on expanding border trade.
Finally, Vajpayee's visit was marked by its economic orientation. A large entourage of Indian business executives accompanied the Indian prime minister and of Vajpayee's three important speeches delivered during his visit, two were addressed at business venues. Indeed, with bilateral trade reaching US$5 billion annually and growing at a phenomenal 70 percent in the first quarter this year, Beijing and New Delhi hold high hopes that two-way trade could reach US$10 billion by 2005.
The coming months and years will show whether the good-will and momentum generated by Vajpayee's successful visit can be maintained. Clearly, obstacles remain and sustained efforts at the highest political level are required to translate many of the blueprints can be realized.
Despite the generally benign atmosphere between the two countries, there remain lingering suspicion and distrust, and the scar of the 1962 war has yet to be healed. The two Asian giants' continuing upward trajectory in economic, military and political influence is bound to lead each into the other's perceived sphere of interests. Conflicts may arise. This requires strategic dialogues at regularized and high levels.