THE brief hand-holding took place in the Gulf of Aden. Despite a history of border dispute, diplomatic clashes and rivalry on various issues, India and China joined forces on April 9 to rescue a merchant vessel from pirates.
Responding to distress signals, they rescued 19 Filipino crew of the Tuvalu-flagged container ship MV OS 35.
The Indian Naval Ships Mumbai, a guided missile destroyer, and Tarkash, a guided missile frigate, joined the Peoples’ Liberation Army ship Yulin to cooperate in the sea off Somalia where piracy rears its head from time to time.
But given rivalry, this maritime solidarity against piracy escaped being a flash in the pan.
China claimed full credit, omitting any reference to the Indians.
As bilateral ties get complicated, it gets noisy as media in both countries join in.
The Chinese media is speculating a “chill” in the ties.
It has advised India to focus on economy rather than build aircraft carriers, an area where India is ahead, but China is catching up.
Last year, China was upset with the United States envoy visiting the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh that Beijing disputes.
This year, it is the Dalai Lama’s visit to the Buddhist monastery in Tawang.
Tawang was where in 1959, the Dalai Lama, then 17, arrived on fleeing Tibet. He remains ever since China’s biggest bug-bear and a factor in Sino-Indian ties.
China warned that letting the exiled spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhists into Arunachal Pradesh would severely damage the already fraught Sino-Indian ties.
But India snubbed the Chinese. Its minister accompanying the Dalai Lama called the visit “purely religious”.
Chief Minister Pema Khandu added a new twist, contending that Arunachal Pradesh shared its border with “Tibet, and not China”.
India officially regards Tibet as an autonomous region of China.
Khandu’s remark would seem to negate that formulation.
Now, a proposal doing the rounds is that India name after the Dalai Lama the road in New Delhi’s diplomatic enclave, where the Chinese embassy is located.
If done, it would remind of a Kolkata street where the American consulate stood being named after Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh.
These developments form part of a chain. The larger picture that is emerging is none too encouraging for Sino-Indian ties.
India is upset at China gaining access to the Indian Ocean via Pakistan.
Chinese goods now travel by road through the Hindu Kush mountains all the way to Gwadar, the port in Balochistan that the Chinese designed, funded and built, and is now Chinese-managed.
Given the speed with which China executes projects and its deep pockets, and the Pakistani anxiety to ensure the success, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and Gwadar have overtaken the Chabahar project that is still in the making with Iran.
India wants to reach Afghanistan and Central Asia through it and help the two to bypass Pakistan.
Beijing has gained land access as well by building CPEC, investing a huge US$46 billion (RM199 billion).
This has consolidated Sino-Pakistani relations on all conceivable fronts as never before.
With its One Belt, One Road (OBOR), China has begun to reach out to much of Asia.
The all-in exercise has most countries nodding their welcome. But India opposes it since it passes through a part of the Kashmir territory that Pakistan annexed and later ceded to China.
India is not into the OBOR either and stands to lose out in what is easily the most ambitious and viable project Asia has ever conceived.
The question is how long can Asia’s third largest economy stay away from it.
India can be a spoiler in China’s ambitions to dominate Asia’s trade.
Under negotiations among countries that account for 46 per cent of the global population and 24 per cent of the global gross domestic product, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership is unlikely to get India’s endorsement and participation.
The Chinese are angry because Indians will not concede them the pre-eminent position in Asia to develop a free-trade zone, replacing the Americans under Donald Trump, which withdrew from the sprawling Trans Pacific Partnership with 11 other countries.
India is unhappy that China is blocking its entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group and will not allow Pakistan-based terror mastermind Mohammed Azahar to be listed on the wanted list of the United Nations Security Council.
The issues are more multilateral than bilateral, but remain prickly and obviate much of the positives like booming bilateral trade cooperation on other issues.
Clearly, India is apprehensive, and not without reason, that China is set to dominate Asia with its money and military power.
Sri Lanka and Myanmar are so indebted to China that they can only delay but not deny, the numerous Chinese projects.
China is Bangladesh’s largest trade partner and supplier of defence equipment.
After two Chinese submarines were inducted by the Bangladesh Navy, the Indian line of credit and defence pacts with Dhaka signed during a very friendly Sheikh Hasina’s Delhi visit would seem like much-delayed peanuts.
When smaller neighbours hold out such promises, the clear message is: the Dragon has arrived in South Asia.
The writer, Mahendra Ved, is NST's New Delhi correspondent, the president of the Commonwealth Journalists Association and a consultant with ‘Power Politics’ monthly magazine. He can be reached via email@example.com