Presidential visits are usually heavy on ceremony and light on policy. But Pratibha Patil's trip to China, first by an Indian head of state in 10 years, has assumed particular significance here against the backdrop of a year of rising tensions between the two neighbours, according to scholars and India analysts here.

“This visit, for China, goes beyond the ceremony and symbolism,” Lan Jianxue, India scholar at the China Institute for International Studies, an influential think-tank close to China's Foreign Ministry, told TheHindu in an interview. “It will help bring confidence to the bilateral relationship, and is all the more important because in the past year China-India relations found many unexpected difficulties. This is an opportunity to bring relations to the right track.”

Thursday's meeting between Ms. Patil and Chinese President Hu Jintao at Beijing's iconic Great Hall of the People is being seen as a crucial step to improving the atmosphere between the two countries which soured last year over border tensions, but has begun to slowly improve following the cooperation at the Copenhagen climate summit.

Chinese scholars do not expect any substantive progress on the many policy issues that continue to challenge the relationship, ranging from India's objections to Chinese projects in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to Chinese concerns over their telecom companies in India, given that presidential visits usually do not address specific issues.

Moreover, External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna's visit to Beijing last month, where many such differences were discussed, only brought modest progress, officials said.

But even in the absence of specifics, the visit could play an important role in improving the atmosphere between the two countries, said Ma Jiali, South Asia scholar at the China Institutes for Contemporary International Relations.

“During the last presidential visit to China, when President K.R. Narayanan was here in 2000, he declared China was not a threat to India and India was not a threat to China,” he said. “It was, back then, a very important statement in the context of relations. In this visit too, the first by an Indian president after 10 years, we hope the two sides will reaffirm that conception and send a strong message. For China and India, this is an important opportunity.”

He expected some specific issues to find mention in Thursday's talks, including the sensitive question of United Nations' reform and China's position on India's bid for a permanent seat on the Security Council, which has remained unchanged since 2005. Last month, Mr. Krishna called on China to “review its previously-held positions.”

The official China Daily newspaper on Wednesday said in a lead editorial that the visit could help address the “lack of trust and mutual understanding” between the countries, which it described as “the major reason” behind the “irritants” in the relationship.