Chinese President Hu Jintao was set to travel to India on Monday for an economic summit that brings together leaders of the two rapidly growing economies whose emergence has the potential to shake up the current world order.
But more than 18 months after they declared a strategic partnership, relations between China and India remain fraught with difficulty. Intense competition for investment and oil supplies, a decades-old border dispute and China's role as a key ally of and top weapons supplier to India's main strategic rival, Pakistan, continue to cast a long shadow over relations.
"The element of competition between the two is quite palpable," said Kripa Sridharan, a South Asian politics expert at the National University of Singapore. But "it is unlikely that their rivalry will turn ugly because that will be detrimental to their broader objective of becoming important global players."
Hu, who was scheduled to arrive in New Delhi Monday, is the first Chinese president to visit India in a decade. During his three-day stay, Hu planned to hold talks with Indian President A.P.J. Kalam and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and visit the cities of Agra and Mumbai.
Trying to inject substance into a strategic partnership the two governments declared in early 2005, Hu planned to preside over the signing of a number of agreements.
Hu and Indian leaders "will express to the world that the development of China and India not only provides opportunities to the two countries but also makes positive contributions to world peace, stability and development," Jiang Yu, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said recently.
Bilateral trade, nearly non-existent 20 years ago, has grown rapidly and is projected to rise 10 percent this year to US$20 billion. Last July, the countries reopened a Himalayan border crossing that was closed 44 years earlier, during a border war.
Chinese state media recently cited a commerce offical saying that Beijing is considering holding talks with India on creating a free-trade area, but it was not clear if the intention was reciprocated by Delhi. Such a trade area would bring together the world's most populous nations, a total of 2.4 billion people.
In a sign of the limits to this budding cooperation, Hu is scheduled to leave India Thursday for Pakistan where he planned to sign agreements on trade, culture and education.
State media have said China hopes to sign a deal to supply reactors to Pakistan for six new nuclear power plants, but it isn't clear this deal will be finalized during Hu's visit.
There have been missteps on Hu's path to India. New Delhi recently barred the Chinese company Hutchison Port Holdings, a division of Hutchison Whampoa Ltd., which is based in Hong Kong, from bidding to participate in a project to build a container port in Mumbai, citing security concerns.
China's Ambassador to India, Sun Yuxi reiterated in a TV interview last Monday China's longstanding claim to the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, one of the territorial claims the countries fought over in 1962 and have yet to resolve. Sun's comments drew a strong rebuke from the Indian Foreign Ministry.
But while China for decades supported Pakistan to try to keep India off-balance, Beijing now has strategic reasons to woo Delhi. Warming relations between India and the United States and potential US-Indian nuclear energy cooperation raise the prospect of an American presence off China's vulnerable southwestern flank.
Stronger US-India links have "added a degree of uncertainty for China and it is probably because of this that Beijing is keen to cultivate India more assiduously," Sridharan said.
New Delhi is waiting for US lawmakers to approve a US-India civilian nuclear cooperation deal that would allow America to provide atomic fuel and technology to India, which is not a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Critics have argued that the deal would boost India's nuclear arsenal, freeing up India's domestic uranium supplies for use in its weapons programs. Pakistan and China could respond by increasing their nuclear stockpiles, sparking a regional arms race.