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India and China attempt to resolve longstanding border dispute

Chinese and Indian officials are meeting here this week in what is seen as an important step toward improving relations between the two countries. Following a meeting between Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang in New York last month, there is guarded optimism here over possibilities for resolving the Sino-Indian border problem which led to war between the two countries in 1962.

While no breakthrough is expected in this round, some analysts are hopeful that the talks may usher in a more flexible approach from both sides.

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``It will be interesting to see if officials come with fresh political instructions,'' says Bhabani Sen Gupta, research professor at the Center for Policy Research.``But certainly the atmospherics for the talks have improved since the two leaders met.''

So far, however, both sides' positions appear intractable. The border issue was inherited from the British colonial era in India and continued to impede Sino-Indian relations even after India's independence in 1947.

The Sino-Indian frontier line stretches from Kashmir to Burma. In 1914, a tripartite conference -- attended by Britain, China, and Tibet -- led to the creation of the McMahon boundary line (named after the British representative). The agreement was initialed but subsequently repudiated by China.

At the heart of the dispute is the northern sector of the boundary, an area that China has occupied since the 1950s. The eastern sector, which China claims for its own is also in dispute, but to a lesser degree.

In 1979, China offered a ``package deal,'' in essence proposing that India give up the northern part in exchange for the eastern sector which was more important to India economically and strategically. But India wanted China to withdraw from all occupied areas in dispute before any settlement talks.

If there is a solution, analysts say, it must be political.

``Boundary-marking is an act of engineering. But boundary-making is an act of statesmanship. . . . There has to be statesmanship on both sides,'' says Mr. Sen Gupta.

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In a broader context, there are compelling reasons why both sides may want to step up the rapprochement process. Some analysts suggest that a resolution of the Sino-Indian border conflict could help pave the way for improved Sino-Soviet ties, which have tended to move parallel with Sino-Indian relations.

There are also other areas in which India and China are at odds. Despite Chinese denials, India is concerned about Chinese aid for Pakistan's nuclear program. India has sporadic armed clashes with Pakistan and fears any alliance between Pakistan and China.

Similarly, India's differences with China over Vietnam and Kampuchea are potential hurdles. India has close ties with Vietnam, believed to be the second largest recipient of Indian economic aid after Nepal.

India wants fuller relations with China but considers the border issue critical to this aim. China would like to move on other fronts, hoping that any progress there might influence the success of the border talks.

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