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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 November, 2003, 14:13 GMT
India and China's public courting
By Mahmud Ali
BBC South Asia analyst

Chinese and Indian warships are beginning the first-ever joint naval exercise in the South China Sea on Friday

Pakistani warships
Pakistani warships held joint naval exercises with China recently
As naval exercises go, this one will be on a modest scale- a few ships will mount search-and-rescue missions on the high sea.

But the significance of the event goes far beyond its scale.

This is only the second time ever that China's Peoples' Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is conducting a joint exercise with another navy.

The first was a fortnight ago- when PLAN vessels conducted similar manoeuvres with Pakistani ships.

That was not so surprising as China and Pakistan have close relations.

'Subtle changes'

But the joint exercise with India, coming close on the heels of the one with Pakistan, provides a hint that relations between the three Asian countries may be undergoing subtle changes.

India and China fought a brief border war along the Himalayas in 1962, in which Indian forces fared poorly.

The first attempts at creating a thaw in their frosty relations came in 1979, from none other than Atal Behari Vajpayee, who was then India's foreign minister and is now prime minister.

But his visit to China was cut short when the Chinese invaded Vietnam.

Indian policy makers have often described China as the country's "northern threat".

As recently as 1998, the Indian Defence Minister, George Fernandes, described China as India's number one threat.

But in recent years China and India have tried to reduce tensions.

Beijing remained neutral during India's military conflict with Pakistan in 1999 and over border intrusions in the Kashmir's Kargil region.

'Win-win situation'

China's enthusiasm for opposing India appeared to have been sobered by the prospect of an antagonistic nuclear power on its borders, and the uncertainties created by Pakistan in Kashmir.

Indian warships
Indian warships in Chinese waters

The possibility of weaning China from its traditional support for Pakistan was swiftly grasped by Delhi.

There were a series of high level visits between leaders of the two countries.

Former Indian President KR Narayanan and ex-Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh visited Beijing, and former Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji came to Delhi.

India is aware of the need for Beijing's support in its quest for the permanent seat at the UN Security Council that it so badly wants.

Its most prominent anti-China voice, Defence Minister Fernandes, visited Beijing last April and insisted that China was no longer a threat.

During Mr Vajpayee's visit two months later, he and China's new leaders agreed to put history behind them and chart a benign future.

Their decision to build on areas of convergence underlined a recognition that China and India could gain much more from collaboration than from confrontation.

Military exercises were agreed on at the time but an official announcement was only made after President Pervez Musharraf had ended his own China trip.

Beijing and Delhi now talk about a "win-win" situation in which both emerging big powers share the benefits of an approach that could transform Asia's strategic and economic contours.

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