When Dr Manmohan Singh traveled to Beijing on January 13, the first visit by a prime minister to China in five years, rediff.com's Nikhil Lakshman was part of the media delegation accompanying the Indian leader. This is his assessment of Dr Singh's journey to the superpower on the ascendant.
How does one measure the success of a prime ministerial visit?
When Dr Manmohan Singh traveled to Washington, DC in July 2005, he returned with the most alluring memento of an altered relationship -- the India-United States civilian nuclear agreement.
His maiden journey to the Middle Kingdom this week yielded no such trophy, but clearly the prime minister achieved what may have once thought improbable -- a warm India-China relationship.
Complete Coverage: Dr Singh in China
For the first time, both nations issued a shared vision document, signed by both leaders. Undermining China, it was often said, was one of Indian diplomacy's primary objectives through much of the last half-century; the reverse was true for the Chinese as well. That may no longer be true.
In Beijing, Indian diplomats believe, there is a new understanding of the value benefits of an improved India-China relationship, and how it can profit both nations. China's current leaders President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are also more pragmatic than those who preceded them, less driven by history and committed to ensuring that the most amazing success story of our time continues without pause.
Five words. 'The Chinese side understands and supports India's aspirations to play a greater role in the United Nations, including in the Security Council.' For long, China has been cool to India's ambitions for Security Council membership. The Indians have argued their case forcefully whenever both sides have met and encountered a we-will-see response.
For the first time, the Chinese have endorsed India's 'aspirations' of inclusion in the Security Council. Maybe it is just Chinese word play. Maybe the Chinese just support a greater Indian role in the United Nations, one journalist asked a senior Indian diplomat, who responded that "You can't play a greater role if you are not a member of the Club, and you are not even there at the Security Council table!"
Dr Singh was characteristically understated when asked about this on his flight home. "The language that has been used in the Vision Statement is an improvement over the previous one..." he said, "What the Chinese have told me, I think that is a step forward, with regard to their attitude to India's membership of the expanded Security Council."
One word When Hu visited India in November 2006, both sides issued a joint declaration which noted that the two nations 'agree to promote cooperation in the field of nuclear cooperation.' This visit's shared vision document uses near identical language to 'pledge' such nuclear cooperation. The afore-mentioned Indian diplomat believes that this one word marks a significant shift in the Chinese position and could pave the way for Beijing'ís support at the Nuclear Suppliers Group if ever the India-US nuclear agreement made it to that forum.
Though Indian diplomats repeatedly claimed that the prime minister had not sought Chinese backing at the NSG, Dr Singh -- honest as always -- revealed at his press conference aboard Air India One that he had indeed done so. He frankly admitted that the Chinese had not given him a "firm, definite answer", but he believed that given the "relationship of trust and confidence" he did not think Beijing would be an "obstacle."
Unlike other prime ministers who are eager to put a euphoric spin on their travels, Dr Singh was endearingly candid in admitting that the "gains (from the trip) are incremental." Dealing with the Chinese can never be a dramatic exercise -- especially when it is accompanied by the avoirdupois of historical suspicion -- and the real achievement of this visit may not be located in the complex language of official communiques. For the first time, an Indian-Chinese encounter was not accompanied by doubt and one-upmanship.
Both Asian giants are certainly competitors on every world stage, but there is now what Dr Singh calls a "maturity of strategic cooperation." His Chinese counterpart was more expansive on the subject. "China and India are not competitors, not rivals," Premier Wen said -- his remarks specially translated for rediff.com by Chinese foreign ministry officials -- "It is not a question of who defeating who and who goes beyond who. We each have our own strengths, therefore we should draw on each other's strengths."
Image: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh introduces members of his delegation to Chinese President Hu Jintao at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, January 15. With the controversial India-US nuclear deal now in limbo, India held out the possibility of civilian nuclear cooperation with China.
Also read: 'India, China relations getting better and better'