The leaders of India and Pakistan will meet on Monday seeking to cast aside enmity that took their nuclear-armed countries to the brink of war in 2002. Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf will hold their first talks in over two years on the sidelines of a South Asian summit. Diplomats call it a step in the process of rebuilding relations and a chance for both men to advance a shaky peace process.
But it is thought unlikely to yield any major breakthroughs in their decades-old dispute over the divided Himalayan region of Kashmir, barring perhaps an agreement to resume a lower-level dialogue, they say.
"It really is a fundamental step forward when you look at how far we've come in the last few months," said one Western diplomat. "But the big question is whether they have moved any closer to each other on the core issue of Kashmir."
Kashmir has been divided between the rivals since a war which followed independence from Britain in 1947. The bitter dispute has cost tens of thousands of lives since then.
Two years ago the neighbors again came to the brink of war over Kashmir, after an attack on the parliament in New Delhi which India blamed on Pakistan-backed militants.
But in April, Vajpayee launched a "final bid" for peace in his lifetime. Since then full diplomatic relations have been resumed and some travel links have been reinstated.
Perhaps the biggest breakthrough so far came in November when Pakistan announced a cease-fire along the front line in Kashmir. That has since held, though violence has continued in Indian Kashmir between security forces and Muslim separatists.
A place in history?
With Vajpayee expected to stand down at elections later this year and Musharraf promising to give up his army uniform at the end of 2004 -- although he will remain president -- diplomats say both men appear keen to move the process forward.
What is less clear is if they will find any middle ground.
"These are two men who both have an eye on their place in history," said a diplomat. "But there is an awfully long way to go once the two countries get to the negotiating table over Kashmir."
India controls 45 percent of the mainly Muslim former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, including the real bone of contention, the stunning Kashmir valley itself.
Pakistan, which controls around a third of the region, is accused by India of fomenting rebellion in Indian Kashmir. It denies the charge and counters by accusing Indian security forces of massive human rights abuses in the Kashmir valley.
China controls a small chunk of territory in the northeast.
Vajpayee and Musharraf last met at a failed summit in the Indian city of Agra in July 2001.
(China Daily January 5, 2004)