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Rivals China, India in escalating war of words

China offered to help India's archrival, Pakistan, develop a territory claimed by India. India invited the Dalai Lama, a top irritant to China, to visit a state claimed by China.

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The frontier, however, "is more a barometer of relations than a problem in itself," suggests Jean-Francois Huchet, who heads the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China, a Hong Kong-based think tank.

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US aid to India irritates China

Among the major irritants in China's relationship with India, says Dr. Huchet, is the civilian nuclear cooperation pact that New Delhi signed last year with Washington.

As well as signaling a new warmth in Indian ties to the United States, the deal will help India make progress in its military nuclear program, Beijing fears.

At the same time, New Delhi has participated in military exercises with Japanese and Australian forces in a "more assertive, proactive foreign policy stance," says Harsh Pant, who teaches international relations at King's College London. "So China is making its rivalry more explicit."

Indian officials have long been resentful at what they see as Chinese efforts to contain Indian influence in South Asia. Most obviously such efforts include Beijing's intimate alliance with India's old enemy, Pakistan; New Delhi is also nervous about China's military aid to its other neighbors such as Bangladesh, Burma, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. (Read here about strategic competition in the Indian Ocean.)

China, on the other hand, is suspicious of Indian intentions. "We cannot disassociate current developments from the overall strategic balance of power," in the region, says Professor Han. "The US strategy is to persuade India to be a kind of check on China's rise, and the nuclear deal was very symbolic of their strategic partnership."

Dalai Lama as trump card

Against this background of mutual suspicions, which belie the two capitals' usual talk of friendly relations, the Dalai Lama's forthcoming visit to disputed territory is set to ignite new fireworks.

The fierce "People's Daily" editorial was "a message showing Beijing's intention," says Han. "They don't want the Indian side to do anything to play the Tibet card."

New Delhi, however, "has no bargaining leverage with China except the Dalai Lama," says Dr. Pant. "He is the last thing they can use against China ... and his visit is a very explicit message. It is being done in response to what China has been doing on the border. It's a tit-for-tat strategy."

That tactic, says Huchet, is "worrisome. There's a clash of nationalisms on both sides ... that is quite difficult to control. Nobody knows when it will stop."