By Simon Denyer
NEW DELHI, Oct 23 (Reuters) - India’s most powerful politician, Sonia Gandhi, heads to China this week to set the stage for a summit between the Asian heavyweights, as relations between the rivals show renewed signs of strain.
Gandhi, head of the Congress party and the ruling coalition, is due to arrive in China on Thursday, setting the stage for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to visit later this year or early next.
"The two visits should be seen in terms of improving the atmospherics and communications at the highest level," said Srikanth Kondapalli at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. "But the two countries are actually trying to hedge each other."
Decades of mistrust between the neighbours date back to a 1962 war, and this year has seen an apparent setback in the long-running border dispute which sparked that conflict.
These days they talk the language of cooperation, but more often than not they are locked in competition, whether for global influence or for the raw materials and energy they need to fuel Asia’s two fastest growing economies.
Singh’s assertion during Chinese Premier Hu Jintao’s visit in 2007, that there was "enough space for the two countries to develop together", is more an expression of hope than conviction, said Mohan Malik of the Power and Interest News Report.
"The relationship between the two rising Asian giants with overlapping spheres of influence and disputed frontiers will be characterised more by competition and rivalry than by cooperation," he said.
Gandhi’s trip comes nearly 20 years after she accompanied her now dead husband, then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, on a historic trip that opened a new era in relations between India and China.
This time she goes not as a spectator but as the power behind Prime Minister Singh.
But she will not be usurping the role of government or discussing specifics like the border dispute, said Congress party spokesman Abishek Singhvi. Instead she will focus on a "holistic range of issues" including closer economic and cultural ties, and closer contacts between the ruling parties of both countries.
Gandhi will also try to smooth ruffled feathers in Beijing, which is suspicious about deepening ties between New Delhi and Washington, analysts said.
Despite domestic political problems, India still wants to seal a controversial civil nuclear cooperation deal with the United States which would effectively sanction it as an unofficial nuclear weapons power.
Its navy was also involved in war games in September in the Bay of Bengal along with those of the U.S., Australia, Japan and Singapore, in what some analysts see as a new alliance of democracies ranged against China’s military might.
New Delhi has its own concerns.
This year China appeared to harden its position on the border dispute, signalling it no longer felt bound by a 2005 agreement that any settlement should not disturb settled populations.
China’s efforts to support India’s arch-rival Pakistan and court its other South Asian neighbours continue to irritate.
And water is emerging as longer-term issue that could poison relations between India and China, argues Brahma Chellany of the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.
China says it has no plans to divert the waters of the Brahmaputra in Tibet towards the Yellow River and its parched west, and many officials say the plan would not be feasible.
But some experts back the idea, which could have drastic implications for northeastern India and Bangladesh downstream.
Chellany says China is "dragging its feet" over an agreement reached last year to set up a mechanism to consult on water.
"If you look at it, since Hu Jintao was in India, things have taken a turn for the worse," he said, adding that Gandhi’s visit would not help.
"Her party is being attacked for being pro-U.S., so she wants to balance that," he said. "This visit is about improving her party’s image and her own image."