Sikkim, the remote Himalayan territory that has been a bone of contention between China and India for more than a quarter of a century, may finally be discussed at the highest level when Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee visits Beijing in June. India has already put out feelers that it is keen on a resolution of the Sikkim issue, and China's response last week has raised hopes that the dispute over the territory bordering Tibet will now be addressed by both sides. 'This is a problem that has existed for a long time,' Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said in Beijing. 'China and India would like to conduct useful and meaningful exploration on this issue,' she added. B. B. Gooroong, political adviser to Sikkim's chief minister, welcomed the Chinese statement, and said: 'On a note like this, we can hope that the prime minister's visit to China next month will definitely lead to something positive, including the revival of the Himalayan trade route between the two countries.' Any agreement on Sikkim may also eventually allow Urgyen Thinley, recognised as the karmapa, or spiritual head, of the Karma Kagyu order of Tibetan Buddhism, to take charge of the sect's wealthy monastery located at Rumtek near the state capital, Gangtok. The karmapa arrived from Tibet in January 2000, but has been unable to go to Sikkim as India suspects him of being a 'Chinese agent'. He is based instead at the Dalai Lama's headquarters in Dharamsala. The Buddhist kingdom of Sikkim was an Indian protectorate until it was forcibly annexed by India in 1975. China refused to recognise the annexation, and the issue has remained a constant irritant affecting bilateral relations. Historically, Sikkim was linked to Tibet's capital, Lhasa, by the ancient Silk Route used by travellers, traders and pilgrims. But the closure of the road following the India-China border war in 1962 has impacted badly on the economy of a region that was already impoverished. As a result, Sikkim's state government has been lobbying New Delhi to settle the issue. Although both China and India recognise the benefits of re-opening the Sikkim-Tibet road, there are differences over what should come first - restoration of trade links, which Beijing wants, or recognition of Indian sovereignty, which India insists on.