New Delhi — With their first exploratory steps behind them, India and China are preparing to move ahead on what both acknowledge to be a long and difficult journey toward a border settlement.
Unless the trip starts off badly, observers here believe, the destination could be less important than the side trips -- into more trade, cultural, scientific, and technological exchanges -- over the next several years.
Neither India nor China tossed a border settlement proposal onto the table during the late June visit here by Chinese Foreign Minister Huang Hua, the first ranking Chinese official to come to India in more than 20 years.
But Huang's trip yielded a Sino-Indian agreement to start talking about the issue that brought the two Asian giants to war in 1962 and has soured their relations ever since.
It was a move of possible historic significance, because border talks -- even if they drag on for years -- offer an opening wedge for greater economic, cultural, and technical agreements that can ultimately add up to an overall improvement in bilateral relations.
Gradual reapprochment between the world's two most populous nations -- which also maintain two of the world's largest armed forces -- could also mean major geopolitical realignments in years to come.
Among the most directly affected would be the Soviet Union, which has long cultivated India and received in return India's regard as a long-time, durable, and reliable friend.
China regards the Soviet Union as a nation bent on "expansionism" in Asia and much of the world, and Huang's trip was part of a Chinese diplomatic offensive in south Asia to warn of Soviet designs and try to minimize Soviet influence.
"An improvement in relations between China and India is not something the Soviet Union wants," commented a Western analyst. "Clearly the Soviet Union does not want this process."
During Huang's visit, Indian officials took pains to stress that improvements in Sino-Indian relations would not be at the expense of any other countries -- as unstated but clear reference of the USSR.
No one expects India to sever its strong trade, cultural, industrial, and arms purchase ties to the Soviet Union Now that the Sino-Indian ice has been broken. But diplomatic observers suggest that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi has her own "China card" to play -- and flashed it deftly during the Huang visit.
"One of the reasons India is interested in improving relations with China is to show the world that they are not in the Soviet camp, that they have an independent foreign policy," says a regional analyst. "Another is to show the Russians themselves that India has some flexibility with China. That gives them some flexibility with the Soviet Union."
Yet another, diplomats believe, is to raise India's standing among fello nonaligned nations. Many have been suspicious at what they see as a pro-Soviet tilt in Indian foreign policy on issues such as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and recognition of the Soviet-backed Cambodian government of Heng Samrin.