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Manmohan Singh on China journey as world watches

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrives on Sunday morning on his first visit to China - a country whose remarkable growth story he personally wanted to witness.

india Updated: Jan 12, 2008 10:20 IST

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrives on Sunday morning on his first visit to China - a country whose remarkable growth story he personally wanted to witness - which is rolling out the red carpet for what Beijing says would be a "big and significant event" in its diplomatic calendar.

Manmohan Singh's Jan 13-15 visit comes four-and-a-half years after then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's China trip that set the stage for a political push for the resolution of the border dispute that has clouded ties between the two Asian countries for nearly five decades.

The visit may be of more symbolic value than substance, and the border issue is unlikely to see any "dramatic turnaround" other than in an agreement being signed on technical cooperation that will ultimately delineate the 3,500-km mountainous frontier.

Manmohan Singh will travel to only Beijing - he has been to Shanghai once way back in 1997 when he was a Congress party leader - citing time constraints due to preoccupations back home, though the Chinese were keen to show him some of their showpiece cities, not just Shanghai but also Guangzhou, Xian or Chengdu.

Shanghai itself has changed beyond recognition in the last decade, transforming from a marshy fishing village to the country's financial go-go capital and a modern metaphor for urban boom.

Chinese officials in Beijing, which this correspondent recently visited, as well as in New Delhi are eager to make Manmohan Singh's visit a success, aware that the "world is watching" the tango between the world's two rising powers and the world's two most populous nations.

So even if there is no tangible progress on the border issue, with the Chinese digging in their heels over territorial claims in the western and eastern sectors, the effort would be towards finding common ground on trade that is burgeoning, energy security (with both countries set to become the world's largest energy consumers), climate change, anti-terrorism and technological cooperation and other major regional and global issues.

Ahead of his visit, Manmohan Singh said India-China relations were "in very good shape" as efforts were on to resolve the "complicated" border dispute.

"We have very good relations with China. My visit is a return visit," Manmohan Singh said while alluding to the visits by President Hu Jintao in November 2006 and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in April 2005.

The focus is likely to be on expanding economic ties - bilateral trade has already crossed $34 billion - and mutual affirmation of each other's rising clout in world affairs. If bilateral trade continues at this rate, the two sides are going to cross $40 billion this year itself. The two rising economies are even exploring the feasibility of initiating a regional trade arrangement.

The two sides met in Beijing in September last year and reached a basic agreement on cargo and service trade, investment as well as trade and investment facilitating measures. The two sides may now decide whether to start free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations, which could be a very significant step.

The first four months had seen trade between China and India surge by 54 percent year-on-year, the highest among all the major trade partners of the world's fourth largest economy, to $11.4 billion, according to Chinese government statistics.

Manmohan Singh's visit comes weeks after the historic joint military exercises by the two Asian powers in Kunming in the western Yunnan province of China last month. Military experts say the exercises underlined newfound warmth and trust between the two countries.

"China is more willing to solve border problems through negotiations, with both the confidence brought by its rapid economic growth and the consideration constrained by its 'peaceful development' promise," said Teng Jianqun, deputy secretary general of the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association.

"The whole international climate has changed since the end of the Cold War, as a country is no longer judged as a friend or an enemy according to its political pattern, that has helped China rebuild relations with its neighbours," he said.

A recent analysis on China's international relations by Xinhua news agency meaningfully pointed out, quoting a White Paper on National Defence in 2006, that China has signed land border treaties or agreements with 12 of its 14 neighbours - the only exceptions being India and Bhutan.

Last year the two countries jointly held the China-India Tourism Year, with China targeting a million tourists from India - more than double the number that visited in 2006. The two sides had frequent high-level exchanges and enhanced bilateral cooperation in various fields.

Problems, however, remain. Diplomats on both sides admit there are mutual suspicions. New Delhi views with great suspicion Beijing's strategic ties with Islamabad and Yangon in particular and Chinese leaders suspect that the US and the West are perhaps trying to use India to "encircle" their country.

The otherwise steadily improving bilateral relations have also been impeded by the Indian refusal to welcome with open arms the Chinese entry into sections of Indian industry on grounds of security considerations, which has upset Beijing.