So China did whatever it could to deny and delay the liberalization of international nuclear trade with India. And it did so in characteristic fashion, using indirect means until the very end.

Illustration: Malay Karmakar / Mint

Those who expected China to behave otherwise had deluded themselves into believing their own statements that “there is room for both India and China to rise in Asia". As C. Raja Mohan noted in an interview with Pragati this month, “China’s rise is taking place a lot faster than that of India. As we look to the future, it is inevitable that India will constantly rub against China in different parts of Asia and beyond. There will be many elements of competition and some opportunities for cooperation with China. Managing this immensely dynamic relationship with China will be the single most important challenge for India’s security policy in the coming years."

So is China a friend or foe? That is a wrong question to ask. The inherent anthropomorphism in the framing of this question confuses the issue, for relations between states are not like relations between people.

On a fundamental level, two powers as large and as proximate as China and India cannot rise without competition. And in most spheres of this competition, it is India that is catching up.

There is competition for regional and global influence: China is taking leadership in regional groupings where it has been a member, and entering groupings where it has not. It is now the most important member in East and Central Asian groupings. It has secured a good foothold in South Asia, through an observer status in Saarc. It has endeared itself to several African regimes, not least because its policy of “non-interference" in their internal affairs allows them to balance Western pressure.

For its part, India has secured a greater role for itself in East Asia, where it has been welcomed because it can help balance China’s influence. Yet there, as in Central Asia and Africa, the gap between Indian and Chinese influence is wide, and arguably widening given the faster pace of China’s rise. Yet, unless India signals its capability and intention to balance China, there is a risk that these countries will decide that the prudent course for them is to get on to the Chinese bandwagon.

Then there is competition in the quest for energy and natural resources. Here, too, China is ahead, but India is engaged in raising its game. The two are already competing in securing fossil fuels. With the India-US deal bringing India into the nuclear mainstream, the competition will extend to securing nuclear fuel too. In Australia, for instance, Chinese state-owned companies are buying uranium mines, while India is locked out from even buying the ore due to the Kevin Rudd government’s dogmatic position on non-proliferation.

And, of course, there is competition for investment and trade, which will only intensify as China becomes proficient in the English language and India gets its manufacturing act together.

So, yes, there’s a contest going on. This does not, however, call for visceral hostility. Each competition has its rules. They cannot be wished away. This is a moment of profound change in the global balance of power, and India would do well to play the game according to what the rules are (and not, as in the past, according to what the rules ought to be). China’s objective — couched as it may be in the language of “peaceful rise" and “harmonious world" — is to become the pre-eminent power in Asia.

It is a game that requires China to improve its relative power. China has two strategies for winning: one, to develop its own power; two, to contain competitors. India’s will be to counter this. Nuclear weapons have made it unlikely that the contest will escalate to war. It is necessary to invest in maintaining the conventional and nuclear deterrence to keep it that way. They may be important in their own right, but the border dispute, Tibet and Taiwan are both instruments and shock absorbers in this geopolitical game.

On the surface, the energy and resources game is zero-sum, and for that reason, the prudent strategy for both parties is to compete with each other. There may be scope for cooperation; but such cooperation will not be in India’s favour until it is able to negotiate with China on a more equal footing. At this time, India should focus on closing the gap, though not necessarily taking the same route as China.

It is a matter of basic economics that greater trade and investment will leave both countries better off. The rules of the game here are entirely different from the rules of the geopolitical or the energy game. There is no good reason — not even “national security" — for restricting trade with and investment from China.

India should avoid playing the geo-economic game according to geopolitical rules (and vice versa). Stability in bilateral relations is a worthy policy objective, but the lesson from Vienna is that it can’t be achieved by pusillanimity, good intentions and certainly not through unilateral diffidence. India must be prepared to drive it in at times and places where it hurts, while simultaneously engaging in mutually beneficial cooperation in other areas. There is, in the end, no one China policy.

Nitin Pai is editor of Pragati, The Indian National Interest Review. Comment at