Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's tour of Japan, Malaysia and Vietnam has set the Chinese debating whether India intends to counter China with new eastern allies.
"Japan and India have placed high expectations upon each other in combining strengths to counterbalance China," wrote a People's Daily online columnist on Wednesday, under a headline asking if 'India's look east policy means look to encircle China?' Commentaries on the People's Daily website, the Communist Party mouthpiece, are considered an indicator of the official line.
The latest piece, ahead of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's meeting with Premier Wen Jiabao in Hanoi, implied that India must consider Chinese concerns while forging new ties in the region. "The savvy Indian leadership will never rashly board the ship of Japan without giving a glance at China's expression," it said, emphasising that China, not Japan, is India's largest trade partner.
"Any attempt by New Delhi to build strategic links to East Asian nations will be decried by Beijing," said research fellow Dean Cheng at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "The point is not so much whether India (or any nation) is trying to encircle Beijing, but whether Beijing believes that's the case. This article typifies thinking in some quarters that this is precisely what's going on."
A Chinese analyst in Shanghai cautioned against 'over-interpreting' India's look east policy. "On the surface, India's look east policy is not strategic. It's to tap the opportunity to strengthen the nation's competitiveness and build India," Shen Dingli, executive dean of the Institute of International Relations at Fudan University, said.
"Look east does not mean fight east," said Shen. "Look east mostly means engage east."
The Chinese foreign ministry has emphasised friendly relations with India and avoided reacting to Singh's talks with his Japanese counterpart Naoto Kan in Tokyo, where both leaders discussed the rise of China. The People's Daily commentary is the first detailed view from the state media on Singh's Tokyo stopover, at a time of Sino-Japanese tensions over political disputes.
The commentary suggested that India skip the 'out-of-tune' policy, 'no matter what a strong temptation it is at the idea of benefiting from China and Japan playing off each other or killing the rival by another's hand'.