Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee ended a six-day official visit to China on Friday on a note of cautious optimism. Addressing a press conference shortly before his departure from Shanghai, Vajpayee declared: "The road is long. But we have made a good beginning."
Though the visit is widely regarded as having been a foreign policy success for the Vajpayee government, the Prime Minister listed what he considered the major achievements of the trip.
These included the shifting of discussions on the border dispute to the political level rather than the official level. As Vajpayee said, "On previous visits, we have never moved forward on the border issue as much as we have on this trip."
Also significant were the Chinese acknowledgement of Sikkim as a part of India. "We have started the process by which Sikkim will cease to be an issue in India-China relations," Vajpayee said.
The Prime Minister claimed that the "decision to establish a joint study group of economists and officials is particularly significant for the expansion of our economic cooperation in existing areas and its diversification into new areas."
He was pleased, he said, to have established a rapport with the new generation of Chinese leaders. "Having met them," Vajpayee declared, "I feel that we can go forward with them."
The only slightly petulant note to his end-of-visit remarks and statement was over criticism of India's declaration that the 'Tibet Autonomous Region' was part of the People's Republic of China. "I do not wish to go into long and tedious explanations or analyses of words," Vajpayee said before re-stating the government line that India has only reiterated our long-standing position on Tibet.
"We have said the same thing for years," Vajpayee told the press conference, "and, in fact, the formulation is better now than it was in the past."
Much of the press conference was vintage Vajpayee. The PM was forthcoming on issues he wished to discuss and dismissive of others. Asked whether China's economic progress suggested that democracy and fast development were incompatible, given India's slow rate of growth, Vajpayee retorted: "This is a question for an essay in a weekly magazine, not a press conference."
Asked whether "we can do a China in India", he first affected not to understand the question, then joked about it ("why not do something better?") before saying that in some areas India was China's equal. "And if given another five years, we will do even better."
Which, of course, led to the inevitable question: did talk of another five years mean that the retirement controversy was at an end?
Vajpayee laughed but avoided a straight answer, preferring perhaps to keep the speculation alive.