The historic trip to China by India's prime minister, the first such visit for 10 years, was never expected to resolve the difficult diplomatic issues which have, for decades, been a source of enmity and suspicion between the world's two most populous countries. And while that has proved to be the case, with progress in boosting economic ties between the neighbouring Asian giants the focus of the six-day visit, their joint declaration on the sensitive border disputes and the question of Tibet mark a significant step in the right direction. President Hu Jintao and Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee both appeared to make concessions. It was agreed that the border between Tibet and Sikkim, a small Himalayan state which India annexed in 1975, should be opened up for trade. Indian border officials will inspect Chinese travellers crossing into Sikkim. This is seen as effectively a recognition by China of Indian sovereignty over the state, which it has long contested. In turn, India recognised that Tibet was part of China and pledged not to allow Tibetans to conduct separatist activities on its soil. The presence of the Dalai Lama in India has been another obstacle to friendlier relations between the two countries. But recent moves by the Tibetan government-in-exile to develop warmer ties with Beijing have made that less of a sensitive issue for both. It is true that both sides have been quick to present these agreements in terms that do not make them appear as either concessions, or changes in policy. India is able to say that it is only confirming its existing position, while China has denied recognising Indian sovereignty over Sikkim. But their value lies in the cordial approach adopted to resolve these seemingly intractable issues, reflecting a desire on both sides not to let those problems get in the way of economic ties. Both China and India have come to the realisation over the past two decades that improving the lots of their own peoples have to be their top priorities. By putting aside their territorial disputes and allowing trade between them, both sides have benefited. Bilateral trade has now reached US$5 billion a year. It will remain difficult for both countries to cast aside some key strategic differences. China is understandably worried about the Indo-US alliance and its projection of power in the region, while India remains deeply suspicious over the close ties between China and Pakistan. Hopefully, rapprochement between China and India, especially if the two could resolve their cross-claims for Chinese-occupied Aksai Chin and Indian-controlled Arunachal Pradesh, could provide a model for India and Pakistan to settle their conflict over Kashmir. While outsiders are inclined to see China and India as naturally engaged in some kind of rivalry for geopolitical reasons, relations between the two ancient civilisations were largely amicable throughout history. Though adjacent to one another, the two are separated by the world's highest mountains, which are impassable most of the year. It makes no sense for either one to seek to conquer or dominate the other. Instead, both have benefited from trade and cultural exchanges along the ancient silk road, through which India exported Buddhism to China and received other imports from the Middle Kingdom in return. Colonial rule and its legacies in South Asia had much to do with the tension that developed between China and India over the past century. The bloody war in 1962 between them was over a disputed border demarcated by the British early last century. Instead of allowing these differences to continue to poison their relationship, both have much to gain by reviving the ancient silk route so their peoples can buy what they lack from one another.