It is becoming popular to use the word 'rivalry' when describing relations between China and India. Recent spats between the two powers over Indian oil exploration and an alleged maritime encounter in the South China Sea certainly highlight the potential for dangerous clashes of interests between Asia's two rising giants.

Indian Defence Minister AK Antony with China PLA Chief Chen Bingde in 2009. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

But is it something that can be called 'strategic competition'? Is it rivalry? These questions are worthy of deep examination. The answers will help us understand whether China-India relations are cause for alarm or whether they could be a point of relative stability in Indo-Pacific Asia's confusing and contested future. After all, China is now India's largest trading partner, and their differences in the South China Sea coincide with new moves to encourage closer investment and financial ties.

I spoke briefly on this at the Australia-India Institute conference in Melbourne yesterday, and will be exploring these matters further in Washington DC next week, including at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

As an opener, I would contend that we cannot hope to recognise rivalry between China and India until we have a clear understanding of what great-power rivalry is. I would argue it is a condition that engages, among other things, vital or core interests of the nations concerned, and which includes a willingness to risk war.

Furthermore, full-blown geopolitical rivalry cannot occur on one dimension only – it needs to go beyond, say, a military capabilities competition to include diplomacy, economics and even soft power. Finally, I am not sure that rivalry can be one-sided. For the moment, China worries much of the Indian security establishment deeply, but most Chinese strategists are much less worried about India than they are about, say, the US and Japan.

That said, the two powers have fought before, and it would be foolish to dismiss the possibility that they could fight again. I recently heard an eminent Indian of uber-Nehruvian tendencies proclaim that 1962 was neither India's China war nor China's India war; it was simply a war that should never have happened. It was fine rhetoric, but it begs the awkward question: whose war, precisely, was it?