China to US: India a 'lesser power', not an equal India and China are in the middle of a spat resulting from a mix of bad timing and unusual Indian assertiveness over the Dalai Lamaâ€™s place in the religious pantheon here, as well as a new determination to pursue its economic interests in the South China seas. The Sino-Indian boundary talks, scheduled between national security advisor Shiv Shanker Menon and his Chinese counterpart, Dai Bingguo, have been cancelled. That was after Beijing demanded that Delhi scrap a Buddhist conference at which the Dalai Lama was expected to be a chief guest. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said China â€œopposed any country that provided a platform to the Dalai Lama and his activitiesâ€. Hong reiterated the Chinese official stand on the Dalai Lama at his weekly Monday briefing, saying he â€œis not a purely religious figure but one engaged in separatist activities for a long time, under the pretext of religionâ€¦We oppose any country that provides a platform for his anti-China activities in any form.â€ Indian diplomats said with China it was imperative to take the long view, which is that â€œanything India does with the Tibetan holy leader is the equivalent to taking a red rag to a bull,â€ and said it was the invitation to him at the Delhi conference that did the trick. â€˜Not an equalâ€™ The recent background to the spat is interesting. According to a highly-placed US government source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the Americans suggested to the Chinese in June that they embark upon a trilateral dialogue with India. This first took place during the conversations between US assistant secretary of state for East Asia, Kurt Campbell, and Chinese vice-minister Cui Tiankai, during their inaugural US-China consultations on the Asia-Pacific region in Honolulu, Hawaii. The Chinese were very clear and told the Americans, the US government source confirmed, that â€œthere was no need for a lesser power, like India, to participate in a dialogue among equals, such as the US and Chinaâ€. The US government source confirmed that the Americans were â€œquite taken aback by the quietly confident manner in which the Chinese turned down the US suggestion on Indiaâ€. The Americans, who have been encouraging Delhi to be much more enterprising in their foreign policy consultations with third countries, will hold the first ever trilateral between India, Japan and the US in mid-December in Washington DC. Until last week, Delhi had seemed to take Chinese criticism in its stride. Foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai, speaking at the ministry of defence think tank, the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, said India would be happy to participate in a trilateral dialogue with the US and China. In fact, the US has been keen to undertake joint projects with India in Afghanistan, in Africa and in the Asia-Pacific. While Delhi has shied away from engaging with the US in Afghanistan, it has happily reaped the benefit of a growing relationship with the US in east Asia and Australia. Indiaâ€™s growing economy has also propelled it towards greater economic integration with Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Australia. With the signature of several Free Trade Area agreements in this part of the world, the sense of India expanding its footprint in Chinaâ€™s neighbourhood is inescapable. Indian thinking So, when India finally decided to take up Vietnamâ€™s offer, pending since 1988, to explore and exploit two oil blocks in the South China seas off the coast from Vietnam, and Chinese premier Wen Jiabao raised the issue with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the East Asia summit in Bali last week, the PM insisted Indiaâ€™s interests were â€œpurely commercialâ€. When India offered to meet China halfway at the Buddhist conference, saying neither the PM nor the President would share the stage with the Dalai Lama, Beijing refused and wanted Delhi to stop the Dalai Lama from attending. Instead, Delhi called off the meeting. â€œThe Indian elephant is usually very lazy, but once it takes a decision, it is very difficult for him to backtrack,â€ said Srikant Kondapalli, Chinese expert at Jawaharlal Nehru Universityâ€™s School of International Studies. Indian diplomats sought to play down the latest disagreement with Beijing, saying both sides would return to â€œbusiness as usualâ€ very soon. Kondapalli noted that in 1956, the Dalai Lama had come to Patna from Tibet to participate in the 2,500th anniversary of the Buddhaâ€™s birth, which then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru had attended. Fifty years later, Delhi could not possibly tell the Tibetan leader not to attend the Buddhist celebrations, especially when he now lived in India. Asked if this spat would have an impact on the likely visit of Chinese vice-president and president-designate Xi Jinping in January, the diplomats noted that the dates for Xiâ€™s visit had not been finalised. The diplomatic sources implied it was time for China to come to terms with Indiaâ€™s rising power and status in the region, considering Delhi had also been adjusting to the reality of China being a rising power that was ready to take its place as the worldâ€™s most powerful nation. They said India had watched China expand its presence in the Indian neighbourhood, especially in Pakistan, but had mostly kept quiet. â€œBut just because China was becoming more sensitive about Indiaâ€™s presence in East Asia does not mean India has to watch its step,â€ said a government official. Kondapalli agreed that China was becoming more â€œisolated, as well as confident at the same time,â€ pointing to its holding of $1 trillion worth of US treasury bonds and its imminent shopping expeditions in the euro zone to snap up cheap assets. On the other hand, as the US sold F-16 fighter planes to Indonesia, strengthened its trans-Pacific partnership with Australia, South Korea, Japan, Singapore and Malaysia, and announced military bases in Australia, the sense that Chinaâ€™s expanding might had to be balanced in some way by the rest of the region was becoming a greater concern, he said.