Like the prettiest girl at a fairy-tale ball or in a Bollywood movie, India suddenly has lots of suitors calling.
A week after US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice came to India, talking of India's growing strategic and economic importance on the global stage, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao will make his first-ever visit to New Delhi with virtually the same message.
In talks starting Saturday, China and India aim to resolve 43-year-old boundary disputes and set the stage for a growing cooperation on trade and security issues.
Yet beneath the surface of this seeming popularity, there is a larger game at work. Neither the US nor China can afford to ignore a growing regional player like India, or to have it working directly against them. Beijing in particular has reason to be wary of Delhi, as the US courts India to be a counterweight to a rising China. But many Indian officials and scholars say the future of Indo-Chinese relations may be less competitive and aimed more at allowing each other to grow large enough to make the world multilateral once more.
"There is no question that the US follows a doctrine of unilateralism" and that is an area of joint concern for India and China, says Mira Sinha Bhattacharjea, former director of the Institute of Chinese Studies in New Delhi. "The bottom line is that we are the neighbors here. We share a border. I would like to see America take a wiser approach to these relations, and see the cooperation of India and China - which includes elements of competition - as a positive thing."
Nobody here expects India and China to return to the days of "Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai" ("India and China are brothers"), the Hindi slogan used during the 1962 visit of China's Vice Premier Zhou Enlai to Delhi. That visit was followed by a brief invasion by Chinese forces into Indian territory, an event that soured Indian and Chinese relations for nearly four decades. This visit aims both at resolving some past boundary disputes from that time, and restoring some lost trust.
"India and China tend to swing between the two extremes, between the undying friendship of Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai on one hand, and veering off to the other extreme of being a foe," says Nimmi Kurian, an associate research professor at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. "Mindful of the fact that we are both rising superpowers, with elements of competition and cooperation, we should forge ahead and not let the difficulties thwart areas where there can be cooperation."
It's a realpolitik policy that is more in step with Henry Kissinger's cold-war détente than with Washington's current war-on-terror mantra of "you're either with us or against us." But it's a policy that is already showing some signs of progress.
After decades of advocating Tibetan independence, India now accepts Chinese control of Tibet, much to the chagrin of thousands of Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala. China, for its part, has recently accepted Indian control of the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim. What remains to be sorted out are China's occupation of Aksai Chin, a 16,500 square mile chunk of Kashmir, and India's control of Arunachal Pradesh, a 35,000 square mile province in India's northeast.
Premier Wen himself calls on both countries to "refuse to let questions left over from history disrupt and impede the development of bilateral relations."
Yet despite such good words, there are many reasons for China and India to view each other as rivals rather than friends.
China has long maintained a close military and strategic partnership with Pakistan, India's nuclear rival. Just days before his visit to China, Wen signed a series of deals with Pakistan, including a plan to manufacture a jointly designed fighter aircraft called the JF-17. This announcement came just days after India announced its intention to buy F-16 and F-18 fighters from the US, including technology that allows India to produce F-16s itself.
More worrisome to Chinese negotiators this week may be the Indian-US plan for India to send its Navy to patrol the Straits of Malacca between Indonesia and Malaysia, a crucial shipping lane. China has long considered Southeast Asia to be its own backyard.
It was in this context that China's ambassador to India, Sun Yuxi, warned against India becoming too closely aligned with the US. "We have nothing against India's growing ties with the US," he told the Calcutta Telegraph. "But Indo-US ties should not be directed against a third country."
One retired Indian diplomat, who requests anonymity, says that China is more interested in building up its future status as a global economic and military superpower. "They're not much bothered with the immediacy of public relations, and what little the Americans can do with India," says the diplomat. "But in terms of the Indian Ocean, and where it merges with the Pacific, they will watch this very carefully."
"China has the point of view that they are a rising naval power," the diplomat adds. "The British took over the world because of naval power. The Americans replaced the British and took over the world because of their technology and naval power, and now the Chinese feel they are bound to be the next superpower of the world."
But the key to that "superpowerdom" is pure economics. China's economic prosperity has been restricted to the southern coast, while its populated central and western provinces have lagged behind. As such, China has been hammering out numerous deals with its neighbors in South Asia. Most visible are two major highway projects: the Kodari highway through civil-war-torn Nepal, which should be ready by 2008; and a similar highway through Burma (Myanmar) to the Bay of Bengal. During talks this weekend, Chinese negotiators may begin discussing similar routes through India's Sikkim territory into Indian markets, or to India's trading ports in Calcutta.
India, too, has gone on a building spree, developing an East-West trade corridor called the Tamu-Kalleva highway, from its northeastern province of Manipur through Myanmar and into Thailand. The motive, like China's, is to spur development in a cut-off region where disaffection is rising.
"This investment in cross-border infrastructure has made the whole region sit up and take notice," says Nimmi Kurian. "The Chinese economic presence, because of its investment, is becoming a magnet. It's pulling the region into its orbit."
Population ('03) 1.065 billion 1,298 billion
GDP ('03) $3.0 trillion $6.4 trillion
Growth rate ('04) 6.5% 9.5%
Foreign Investment ('03) $4.3 billion $53.5 billion
Living on < $1/day ('04) 33% 16%
SOURCES: CIA Factbook, Asia Development Bank, World Bank, UN World Investment Report 2004