The combined population of China and India is 2.3 billion, one-third of the world’s inhabitants. Nevertheless, the two nations have had curiously “little contact or understanding” over the centuries, according to the Financial Times. A desire to improve bilateral trade led Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to visit China this week—the first trip to China by an Indian leader in more than a decade—and to key compromises from both sides. The FT dubbed the week’s achievements “the biggest step toward replacing enmity with co-operation between the countries since … 1988.”
China and India fought a war over disputed boundaries in 1962—China won—and they still disagree about the “ownership” of much of their 2,500-mile border, but this week the two countries made progress in resolving some of the most controversial issues. Beijing offered de facto recognition to New Delhi’s control over the border state of Sikkim, and New Delhi acknowledged that “the Tibet Autonomous Region is part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China” and pledged to oppose the activities of Tibetan separatists in India.
India annexed the state of Sikkim in 1975, but China has always refused to recognize the accession. This week, a trade agreement designated “Changgu of Sikkim state” as the Indian side of a border pass, indicating tacit acceptance of India’s control of the region (although a Chinese spokesman later noted that the question of Sikkim is an “enduring” one that can only be solved “gradually”). India’s concession regarding Tibet was controversial—after all, the Dalai Lama has based his exiled court in India since 1959—and the Times of India reported that many readers were incensed by India’s “betrayal” of the Tibetans. Still, the Telegraph of Calcutta noted, Indian officials maintained the statement did not represent a political shift: “The recognition of the Tibet Autonomous Region, Indian sources said, was not the same as accepting China’s control over the entire ‘Tibet region.’ There were other regions of Tibet which were outside the autonomous region. The Indian position continued to be that these areas are part of the Tibet region, and not of the autonomous region.”
Most papers kept their eyes on the trade prize. The Hindu foresaw a chance for a Sino-Indian axis to balance U.S. domination: “It is an opportunity to turn a historic potential into a reality by giving the relations greater depth through closer economic cooperation and political understanding. The visit is taking place at a time of unprecedented flux in international relations, when, through their combined leadership, the two can impart a needed balance to global affairs, rudely shaken by the American doctrine of pre-emption and the war on Iraq that followed its unveiling.” An op-ed in the Hindustan Times said the agreements reached during Vajpayee’s visit “will have deeper implications for the two nations because they have all the ingredients of unlocking the economic strength of two potential powerhouses.” The Financial Times concluded the two nations can learn a lot from each other: “India demonstrates that even a nation of more than 1bn can function as a democracy. China shows that a still larger state can be economically dynamic and attract investment. The question is not why China and India are talking and trading but why they did not start earlier.”