Jonathan Eyal, Europe Correspondent In London

Commonality, competition between China and India

Beneath the buzz created by Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to India lies a history of strategic pinpricks between the two countries, and India's indecision on how to deal with a rising China.

Certain rules and traditions are observed each time the top leaders of India and China get together.

Every meeting is hailed as "historic", culminating in grand announcements about hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of new trade and investment deals, many of which consist of recycled old pledges, plus aspirational infrastructure projects which may or may not materialise.

Yet each meeting is also preceded by some seemingly trivial military clash at the contested borders between the two countries, prompting doubts about how friendly the two nations can actually be. And, with an equally monotonous regularity, journalists covering such events always end up using the same metaphors: tigers, dragons, pandas or elephants remain firm favourites.

So it proved with the recent visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to India, the first since the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. On the eve of his arrival, Mr Xi wrote about his respect for India's "ancient and magic land", and his belief that the economies of "the world's factory" and "the world's back office" complement each other.

Not to be undone, Mr Modi arranged for Mr Xi's trip to start in his home state of Gujarat rather than in New Delhi, as would be the norm; pictures of the two leaders dining by the Sabarmati River were impressive.

So were the promises of a US$100 billion worth of trade deals, "thrice the investments offered by Japan", as a Chinese diplomat helpfully pointed out.

With so much good news around, nobody wanted to spoil the bonhomie by pointing out that just as the two leaders were sitting down together, Chinese troops interfered again with Indian observation posts in the disputed Ladakh border region of Kashmir.

In short, this was a perfect reiteration of one of the world's oddest relationships, between two giants fully cognisant of their rising importance but still strangely ignorant of each other's strategic cultures and global aspirations.

At least in theory, India and China's perceptions of their strategic environments are similar. Both entertain a healthy dose of reticence about the existing world order, conceived and hitherto run by former colonial powers.

And both believe that this old world is changing fast. Mr Shivshankar Menon, who served as India's national security adviser until the recent change of government, could have spoken for the Chinese as well when he pointed out earlier this year that the world's "unipolar moment came to an end with the economic crisis of 2008, and now a fundamental reordering appears to be under way". Mr Menon has also argued that this trend towards a multipolar world in which no single country exercises overwhelming dominance "actually increases the opportunity and need for India and China to work together on global issues", a sentiment which current Indian national security adviser Ajit Doval shares.

Key conflicts, common points

Nobody expects this cooperation to develop fast. But, contrary to popular perceptions, some of the key areas that currently divide these two big nations are also capable of drawing them together.

Take Pakistan or Afghanistan as examples: Although approaching both problems from different perspectives, both Beijing and Delhi have an interest in ensuring that these countries remain stable and don't become international hubs of terrorism.

A growing dependency on secure sea lines of communications can also help cement Sino-Indian relations. A staggering 85 per cent of Chinese oil imports flow through the Indian Ocean within striking distance of the Indian navy.

Meanwhile, more than half of India's trade is now going through the Malacca and Singapore straits, approaching waters in which the Chinese navy is predominant; mutual vulnerabilities are often the best way to reach an understanding.

Much has been said about Mr Modi's supposedly more assertive nationalism. But the reality is that having repeatedly condemned the outgoing Congress-led Indian government for being too supine in dealing with Chinese border incursions, Mr Modi's government acted in exactly the same manner with the latest border troubles, preferring to downplay their significance.

And it was Mr Modi who enthusiastically tweeted last week the message "INCH towards MILES", which apparently stands for "India and China towards Millennium of Exceptional Synergy", a cringe-making slogan which prompted mischievous remarks that just about the only "inching" now taking place is by the Chinese military into Indian-controlled territory.

Ultimately, however, although ordinary Indians entertain a far more positive attitude towards the United States than their Chinese counterpart, leaders in Delhi and Beijing are equally torn between an instinct to contribute to the maintenance of the current US-led global system and the imperative of changing it.

Or, put differently, both India and China are at the cusp between becoming status quo or revisionist powers.

Mutual misunderstanding

What keeps them apart is a fundamental lack of understanding about each other's strategic culture and national aspirations. Most Indian policy planners underestimate China's internal vulnerabilities, opting to view the Chinese as a monolith on the march, a behemoth which can only grow bigger and is bound to reduce India's strategic room for manoeuvre.

And Chinese planners do the same, by overplaying the military importance of India's growing ties with the US, and by seriously underestimating India's economic and technological potential.

Many Chinese decision-makers simply cannot understand how a country that tolerates road potholes and mud patches metres away from its top government buildings in New Delhi, or is paralysed by petty internal political disputes which in China would been resolved in minutes, could still be a global power.

Polite words aside, much of China's approach to India remains patronising, and is very frequently influenced by frankly racial negative stereotypes.

The result is that both sides suffer. Take the "maritime silk road" proposal which Chinese President XI Jinping first raised last year as a case in point. In theory, this could be an initiative which, if carefully handled, could enhance confidence as well as trade between the region's nations.

However, the Chinese don't seem to realise that if they are to persuade India of the benign nature of their offer, they need to provide more details on what this imaginary "silk road" entails; instead, all that Mr Xi and his officials did last week was to simply reiterate their proposal, coupled with all the hoary old cliches about creating "win-win situations" and a "harmonious world".

The result is that most Indian strategists have already dismissed this proposal as a "Chinese ploy" to legitimise a growing Chinese military presence in the Indian Ocean, as Mr Vijay Sakuja of the influential National Maritime Foundation in New Delhi trenchantly put it in a recent analysis.

And the outcome is that as the leaders of China and India embraced and clicked their glasses at glittering state receptions last week, the usual cat-and-mouse game between the two countries continued.

Mr Xi also included in the same trip a visit to the Maldives, where Indian influence was ousted by some clever Chinese manoeuvring.

And at about the same time, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee visited Vietnam, where he hinted that negotiations are in an "advanced stage" to sell the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile, which Russia and India jointly developed and which Vietnam thinks it needs in order to stand up to Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea.

It can be argued that these strategic pinprick games have been going on for years, and usually with little damage. But such complacency is unwarranted.

For what Chinese leaders probably don't realise is that the Indian political elite have still not decided on whether they should plan for a future in which India forges a pragmatic relationship with China and each power respects each other's pre-eminence in its own neighbourhood, or whether India should create its own network of alliances in Asia with Japan, Australia and key Asean countries in order to raise the cost which China will need to pay for continuing to challenge and goad India.

It's a momentous decision which will affect the security of the entire region and which, once taken, creates consequences not easily reversed. But it's also an Indian decision over which China could have a great deal of positive influence - provided Chinese leaders realise that a true understanding of India's aspirations requires something more than just a trip and a few polite compliments.

Jonathan.eyal@gmail.com