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Indian PM Set for China Visit Amid Warming Ties - 2003-06-22

India's prime minister travels to China Sunday for the first visit by an Indian leader in a decade. The visit comes amid warming ties between the Asian giants.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee meets China's new leadership as both countries make concerted efforts to improve their relationship, which was marked by mistrust for decades.

Indian Foreign Secretary Kawal Sibal said the visit will send a powerful signal that the world's two most populous countries want to build trust. "The objective of the prime minister's visit to China on this occasion is to impart further momentum to our broad-based bilateral cooperation and to build better understanding and trust between our two people," he said.

Indo-Chinese ties have been troubled since the two countries fought a brief border war in 1962. India is wary of China's friendly ties with Pakistan. China has been suspicious of India since New Delhi gave shelter to Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who has resisted Chinese control of his homeland. Beijing was also angered by India's 1998 nuclear weapons tests.

But officials on both sides say the two countries now would rather see each other as allies, not rivals.

Alka Acharaya follows Indo-Chinese relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University's School for International Relations. She says pockets of suspicion linger in both countries, but the focus is on building bridges in as many areas as possible, while working slowly to resolve the differences. "It makes ample sense for both countries to reduce tensions, to reach points of agreements on issues affecting bilateral, regional, global issues, and it also makes ample sense to expand cooperation in as many areas as possible," he said.

The old border dispute is likely to be on the agenda of Mr. Vajpayee's visit, but is no longer considered an obstacle to improving ties. Officials from both countries have met regularly since the 1980s to sort out the dispute on the Himalayan border.

Improved political ties have boosted the economic relationship and a high-profile business delegation accompanies Mr. Vajpayee. Bilateral trade stood at five billion dollars last year, an increase of 25 fold over the past decade. But industry experts say it could be higher, given that India and China are two of the world's largest markets and fastest-growing economies.

AK Mitra heads the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry. He said business leaders in both countries want to focus on investments, joint ventures, manufacturing, research and development. "China and India are in the similar level of development, their concerns are similar, their production structures are similar, so there could be many, many areas of partnership," he said.

Prime Minister Vajapyee is expected to sign a political declaration and several agreements during his six-day trip. Besides visiting Beijing, he will also travel to the commercial hub Shanghai, and Luoyang.