BEIJING (Reuters) - China is not seeking to contain India by military or other means, a senior diplomat said on Tuesday, ahead of a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping next week to a country with which Beijing has a history of uneasy ties and mutual suspicion.
From economic parity in 1980, China’s growth has outstripped India’s fourfold and Beijing has sought to recycle some of its vast export surpluses into foreign investment in resources and infrastructure in South Asia to feed its industrial machine.
That rising economic presence in the Indian Ocean region has stoked concerns in New Delhi that China is creating a “string of pearls” that surrounds India and threatens its security, including Chinese investments in ports and other key projects in Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
Xi will also be visiting Sri Lanka and the Maldives on his regional tour, which begins later this week with a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Tajikistan.
A swing through Pakistan - China’s “all weather friend” in South Asia and traditional rival of India’s - was postponed due to ongoing unrest.
Assistant Chinese Foreign Minister Liu Jianchao said that the leaders of China and India had pledged to work together to manage and control their differences, adding that they shared common interests as large developing nations.
“India is a country with which China has been friendly for thousands of years,” Liu told a news briefing.
“China has never, and will not, use so-called military or other means to try and hem in India,” he added. “There is no strategic competition between China and India in our relationship and there is certainly no such word as ‘surround’.”
A festering border dispute dating back to the 1960s has also hung over relations, despite the close economic and historical links. The two sides fought a brief border war in 1962.
Liu did not signal that there would be a breakthrough on this tricky subject while Xi was in New Delhi, but said the two countries were committed to ensuring a peaceful border.
“Whether the governments or the militaries, both countries have the strong intention to maintain the peace and tranquillity on the border,” he said.
Asian great-power diplomacy has stirred to life since the rise to power of Indian nationalist Narendra Modi, who announced his intent to play an active role on the world stage by inviting regional leaders to his inauguration in May.
China and India have made a particular effort to reach out to each other since Modi’s election, and this will be Xi’s first trip to the country as head of state.
Although Modi seeks pragmatic economic engagement with China, in Tokyo earlier this month he criticized countries with an “expansionist” mindset, a coded jibe against Beijing’s assertive behavior in Southeast Asia.
Last week, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe began visits to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
Xi starts his trip in Tajikistan at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit.
China, Russia and four Central Asian nations - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan - formed the group in 2001 as a regional security bloc to fight threats posed by radical Islam and drug trafficking from neighboring Afghanistan.
After that, Xi will travel to the Maldives, Sri Lanka and India in that order, on a visit which ends on Sept. 19, Liu said, without giving exact dates for when he will be in each country.
Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie