India and China Soften over Tibet ; at Meetings This Week in Beijing, Leaders of the Two Nations Reach Agreement on Old Border Disputes

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Seeking to downplay old border disputes and to enhance trade, India and China have taken modest mutual steps that could help Asia's largest nations put 40 years of chill behind them.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's visit to China this week signals at least an intention by the two nations to explore a new relationship - and the beginnings of an Asian understanding stretching across the Himalayas. It is the first step taken by the two sides to actually become neighborly, some analysts say, though it may also prove to be a journey of 1,000 miles.

India officially accepted China's definition of "Tibet" and vowed to curb militant-minded Tibetans living in India. China, by opening a trade route to Sikkim on its southern border, informally agreed that India's sovereignty extends to that mountain entity. Yet it appears that a rumored deal allowing a visit by the Dalai Lama to Lhasa, Tibet, engineered by Delhi, has not materialized - though sources say the subject was probably raised informally.

In the post-Sept. 11 era, as the US moves toward more fluid coalitions of interest, India and China may be following suit by pursuing better ties with Washington and with each other. As Chinese leader Hu Jintao stated in a meeting with Prime Minister Vajpayee, "history will show we are partners, not rivals."

Or, as a Western scholar in Beijing puts it, "There is enough maturity in both India and China to contemplate a relationship based on Asian proximity and Asian solidarity, something often talked about, but never realized."

That sounds good on paper. Trade between the two nations has increased from several hundred million in the 1990s to $5 billion today, according to Chinese Foreign Ministry figures. Direct flights between Delhi and Beijing have been under way for more than a year.

There remains, however, significant anti-China feeling in Delhi. When the current Hindu nationalist government came to power in 1998, its stated rationale for testing a nuclear device only days later - an act that forced Pakistan to test - was a perceived threat from China. The security brain trust in Delhi has viewed China as a regional danger, and its intelligentsia have chafed at a perceived cultural dismissiveness of India by the Chinese.

Brief mid-century bright spot

Both countries emerged from occupation and a colonial past in the mid-20th century. There was a brief halcyon period in the late 1950s when Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru thought the two nations would link arms, redefine Asia, and create a developing-world socialist paradise. When Chinese premier Zhou Enlai visited India in 1956, Indians thronged the streets shouting "Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai!" - India and China are friends. …