China and India have taken a vituperative war of words and diplomatic barbs to an unusual level of tension in recent days, prompting fears that the traditional rivalry between the two Asian giants could spin out of control.
"The most urgent present job for both sides is crisis management," says Han Hua, an expert on South Asia at Peking University. "I don't think either government wants the situation to go further downhill."
The recent angry exchanges were prompted by a decades-old border dispute over which the two countries went to war in 1962, and which has proved impervious to 13 rounds of negotiations since.
But deeper resentments lie behind the spat, says Shen Dingli, deputy head of China's South Asia Research Institute. "The structural problem is leadership," he argues. "The question is who leads in Asia?"
The "People's Daily," published by China's ruling Communist party, launched a blistering attack on India last week, accusing it in an editorial of "recklessness and arrogance" and of harboring "the dream of superpower ... mingled with the thought of hegemony."
The tirade followed an expression by the Chinese foreign ministry of its "deep dissatisfaction" with the election campaign visit earlier this month by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims as its own territory.
New Delhi has also let it be known that next month it will allow the Dalai Lama, who lives in exile in India, to visit a major Tibetan monastery in Arunachal Pradesh. That is bound to infuriate Beijing, which has been especially sensitive to Tibetan issues since an uprising in Tibet in March 2008.
Meanwhile, India has this year moved two army divisions to areas adjacent to the border with China, and built three new airstrips in the Himalayan foothills. The buildup is seen as a bid to match Chinese military might in southern Tibet, and to deter increasingly frequent cross-border incursions by Chinese patrols. (See Monitor story here.)
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.
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."