Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi’s visit to Delhi on March 1 (Thursday) as part of the preparation for the BRICS Summit meeting in end March that India is hosting was significant at the bi-lateral plane, as it led to a broad agreement for greater co-operation between the two Asian giants in the maritime domain. This would include exploring the possibility of joint operations against the menace of piracy – as also sharing technological know-how for seabed research.

It is instructive that this slightly positive tenor in the bi-lateral relations came about against the backdrop of a familiar pattern apropos the territorial and border dispute in relation to Arunachal Pradesh and the abiding Indian concern about the diversion of river waters by China. In contrast, Beijing’s own concerns about Tibet and the Dalai Lama are equally well-known and it may be recalled that in December last, border talks were called off since Delhi was the venue for the World Buddhist Conference that featured the Dalai Lama as a speaker. The current Yang visit had Tibet high on the agenda and it is understood that Beijing sought assurances that there would be no disruptions or protests by Tibetan activists during the BRICS Summit.

As in the past, India has reiretare dits commitment that it would not allow any political activity by the Tibetan activist – and in many ways this will be similar to the Indian position when the Olympic torch was transiting India as it was escorted to Beijing.

Thus the core question for the lay person remains. Is China a friend of India? An adversary ? A partner ? A competitor ? The answer is that it is all of these - and the posture will depend on the issue that is under scrutiny. In relation to the complex territorial and border dispute – over which the two countries went to war in 1962 – their position remains adversarial. As post colonial states, both China and India have a very heightend index about the correlation between territoriality, identity and national sovereignty. Thus Taiwan and Tibet have a salience in the Chinese perception about the unity and identity of the ‘motherland’ and in the Indian case – Kashmir - goes beyond the territorial to the very idea of India. This issue has festered for 50 years and both sides have set up special representatives to address this issue, who in turn have met as many as 15 times – but the progress is glacial. Pakistan has compounded the matter by ceding some of the territory it has seized (illegally in the Indian perception ) to China – and the topography has not made the issue any easier. Some innovative give and take will have to be evolved but the popular discourse on both sides will have to be made more malleable for any meaningful progress.

As regards trade and the economic relationship, India has an asymmetrical relationship with China and is a junior interlocutor. China has a GDP that is almost five times that of India and the latter is a relatively minor trade partner for Beijing. Yes, the bi-lateral trade is now poised to touch US $ 70 billion – and experts suggest it will cross 100 bn in the next three years. This is a small figure for China and the trade balance is adverse to India and these are areas that have to be redressed – and some balance brought into the relationship. China is aware that India represents a potentially major market and all economic and trade logic will indicate that Beijing cannot afford to ignore a 1.2 billion strong economy. This is the reason why major Chinese companies such as Huawei remain engaged with India.

One reality cannot be refuted by both China and India. If the 21st century is indeed to be an Asian century – this can be realized only if the China-India relationship is stable and they are both stakeholders in an equitable manner. The larger global strategic environment has to contend with the relative decline of US power and influence (the Af-Pak region is case in point) and the concurrent rise of China – and to an extent that of the other BRIC nations – namely Russia, Brazil and India. India and China have demonstrated that they can harmonize their positions to a certain extent –as was seen at the last global climate deliberations. Trade talks could be another area though their strengths are in different domains – manufacturing and services respectively. There is need for greater consultation on regional issues – and here the management of rivers along with other South Asian states such as Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan is critical.

Beijing has demonstrated its economic and fiscal prowess at a time when the rest of the world is in some turmoil and depressed growth – including India. But China itself has major internal challenges to address, including protests from the non-Han minority and the economically deprived, at a time when the top leadership in Beijing is in transition. For India the next two years will be one of relative domestic political pre-occupation as the UPA II enters its last lap before the 2014 elections. Thus there is a need for the bi-lateral relationship to be managed with sensitivity and an eye on the long term strategic opportunities. The well-being of more than 2 billion global citizens lies in the manner in which a small elite in both capitals will read the tea-leaves as handed down by Chanakya and Sun Tzu respectively. It would be misleading and ill-advised to reduce this unique bi-lateral relationship to one of contested borders and rivers alone.