BEIJING – Amid fierce disputes with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, China is reaching out in a friendly way to India in a warming trend that could help ramp up economic exchanges and dissipate decades of distrust between the two giant neighbors.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was the first foreign leader to call Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi following Modi's election last month, telling him that Beijing made strong bilateral relations a priority. The next day, Li dispatched his top foreign policy adviser to tell India's ambassador that China wanted to boost cooperation in all areas.
On Monday, Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Modi in New Delhi to discuss trade and affirm that past differences between the countries shouldn't affect their current relations.
The potential for India-China ties is "just like the emerging tip of a massive buried treasure that awaits your discovery," Wang was quoted as saying in an interview with India's The Hindu newspaper.
Relations between the sides had long been strained amid India's worries about Beijing's rising strength and a decades-old dispute over their shared 6,400-kilometer (4,000-mile) Himalayan border that triggered a brief war in 1962. Modi talked tough while campaigning, saying India didn't want a war with China but would be prepared to deal with any threats.
However, after leading his party to a landslide victory on economic promises, Modi surprised many in India by immediately reaching out to neighboring Asian countries, including traditional archrival — and close Chinese ally — Pakistan.
Beijing, too, has much reason to draw nearer to India, especially as the United States, its chief rival, seeks to strengthen its relationships in Asia after the distractions of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Huang Jing, a China expert at Singapore National University's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
"India carries great strategic value for China, so its bottom line is to not push India over to the U.S.," Huang said. "China wants India, at the very least, to stay neutral."
Manoj Joshi, a leading Indian defense analyst, said both sides want to "get down to work to resolve prickly issues."
The warm sentiments began even before Modi was elected. The new prime minister had already visited China four times during his 12 years as chief minister of the west Indian state of Gujarat. Li, China's premier, made India his first foreign destination after taking office last year.
The thawing in relations also comes amid China's rising concerns about instability in Pakistan, which Beijing fears is being used as a base for militants fighting Chinese rule in the far northwestern region of Xinjiang. China now considers Pakistan as a liability rather than an asset and sees the need to cooperate with India on stabilizing the situation, Huang said.
China is also eager to help revive India's stalled economy, upgrade its crumbling infrastructure and prop up faltering bilateral trade, which dropped to $65 billion last year, with China enjoying a $48 billion surplus.
Having grown into the world's second-largest economy, China offers a road map for reform, particularly in an Indian manufacturing industry that is crucial for Modi to fulfill his promise to create the jobs needed for the 13 million youths entering India's labor market every year. Manufacturing makes up 31 percent of China's economy, but just 15 percent of India's.
Despite the new friendliness, Huang and other observers see little chance of an end to the border dispute after 17 rounds of talks, although Joshi said recent Chinese pronouncements seem to indicate a heightened desire for progress.
However, an overall resolution requiring major concessions is considered unlikely given strong nationalist sentiments on both sides. The key issue, observers say, will be avoiding flare-ups such as a three-week standoff between their border guards last year.
"More important than a resolution ... is to not let the border issue affect the overall relations," said Wang Lian of Peking University's School of International Studies.
Wang sees the greater challenge to ties coming from outside the relationship, as Modi courts closer ties with fellow democracies and Chinese rivals such as the U.S. and Japan.
Huang said Modi is trying to maximize his advantage by playing the three off each other as they seek influence and markets in India. He's also made it clear that India won't be rolling over for Beijing and will continue supporting the self-declared Tibetan government-in-exile, whose leader, Lobsang Sangay, was a prominent guest at Modi's inauguration.
Chinese and Vietnamese ships have clashed repeatedly in the South China Sea since Beijing moved an oil rig into waters claimed by Hanoi on May 1. China and the Philippines are embroiled in a similar dispute, while China has revived its beef with Japan over territory and Tokyo's World War II invasion.
Associated Press writers Nirmala George and Tim Sullivan in New Delhi contributed to this report.