Though the present international system is a six-nation balance of power, there is still not adequate understanding in India how a balance of power system operates.
Having been conditioned by six decades of bipolarity, the Indian perception is that if the United States is one pole there should be yet another.
Though the US has a $300 billion trade with China and is collaborating with it in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum, Association of South East Asian Nations Regional Forum, clean energy initiative and is a party to invite China to the G-8 summit of leading industrial nations, in many minds China features as a rival pole.
From that follows the simplistically logical conclusion from the orthodox Cold War logic that India has to choose to be a friend of China or the US and cannot have cordial relations with both.
This misperception has influenced a significant segment of our political class.
A balance of power involving multiple powers is a game of competition among nations for power and influence and need not involve militarily adversarial relations.
This is understood in the other five nations -- the US, China, Russia, the European Union and Japan.
Till the US announced its intention to help India in its moves to become a world power last year, China did not care much about India. It used to characterise India as a regional power.
Once the US did so, the Chinese started recognising India's global role. So did the Japanese.
The US, the European Union, Russia and Japan are interested to use India as one of the factors in balancing the growing power of China in Asia. Hence the US emphasis on an Asian balance of power.
So India too is included in the ASEAN Regional Forum, and in the clean energy initiative. India too gets an invitation to the G-8 summit. India is a candidate for Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation.
Neither the US nor China treats India as a client State that has to choose between one and the other.
India is recognised as a fast-growing economic power and all other countries are keen to expand their trade relations with India.
Even as India is to be extended full access to civil nuclear energy, there is competition among Russia, France and the US on selling nuclear reactors to India.
French President Jacques Chirac visited Delhi and concluded a civil nuclear energy cooperation agreement with India pending India being formally made an exception from the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty.
The Russians went one further. As soon as American President George W Bush announced the agreement with India on the nuclear issue, Russia announced its intention to ship enriched uranium fuel for Tarapur.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has indicated that America expects to sell nuclear reactors to India once India is formally extended access to civil nuclear energy.
One need not be surprised if after some hesitation, Japan too joins the queue.
Similarly, the US, France and Russia are competing to sell 126 multi-role combat aircraft to the Indian Air Force.
India divided its civilian airliner purchase between France and the US. Indian (formerly Indian Airlines) is to get its Airbuses from France while Air-India will buy Boeing aircraft.
Trade with China has started accelerating.
Even when India had to deal with a bipolar situation, India could play a balance of power game called nonalignment. India received PL-480 aid from US and benefited enormously out of technical cooperation in agriculture which led to the Green Revolution in India, while the Soviet Union was the main source for defence supplies and for the development of heavy industries.
India did not approve of the Soviet presence in Afghanistan or endorse Brezhnev's Asian Security plan.
In spite of such an independent stand, the US used to consider India as pro-Soviet.
In the same way today many tend to interpret enhancement of India-US relations as being anti-Chinese.
This kind of attitude arises out of rigid mindsets and not keeping up with the world's fast changing developments.
During the Cold War it was the anti-Sovietism of the West. Now it appears to be due to the rigid anti-Americanism of some sections of our political class.
The Indian perception of the evolving balance of power has been spelt out clearly by Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh in his address to the combined commanders conference on October 20 last year.
'It is clear that each of the major powers will seek normal and mutually beneficial relations with the United States,' he said. 'They will also seek to improve bilateral relations with each other independent of their relations with the US. Our strategic policy must orient itself to this new complexity. We must shed old Cold War shibboleths, rework our relationships with all major powers and emerging economies and improve our relations with all our economic partners and neighbours.'
'India is reciprocating positively to overtures of other major players in the global balance of power,' he elaborated further. 'No doubt this involves sophisticated bargaining with each of them. It is unrealistic to expect them to do anything for altruistic reasons. This balance of power politics in international relations is more sophisticated than during the Cold War era. We must learn to deal with this new reality and plan our long-term security based on a proper appreciation of these trends.'
It is this inadequacy of sophistication to play this balance of power game that leads to charges from the Cold Warriors that India must choose between US and China even as the two countries are cooperating with each other in many areas.
The key to successful practice of balance of power is to induce competition among other powers to enhance their relationship with our country.
This can be done only if the country grows fast and provides opportunities for trade and investment for other major powers.
It is therefore not surprising that those who are against India playing a sophisticated balance of power game also place various impediments to India's fast economic growth.
Yet another aspect of rigid Cold War mindsets that comes in the way of understanding and playing the balance of power game is the impractical concept of independent foreign policy and sacrificing national interests either for outdated ideology or for domestic vote bank considerations.
In the nonalignment era our foreign policy was mostly avoiding harsh decisions on international issues. That was easy since only two players were involved.
In the present international balance of power game there are many more options than were available then. There will no doubt be occasions when India may have to do a favour for another or a group of countries. That will be on cold calculation of that favour being returned when India needs it. That kind of give and take is the warp and woof of international diplomacy.
Multiplicity of major nuclear weapon powers dictates a balance of power world when the entire international community has accepted market economy and democracy as basic norms for international functioning.
There is no scope for ideological antagonisms and alignments.
Even the Chinese accept that their intention is to move towards increasing political pluralism even as they have embraced market economy with great enthusiasm.
Nehru's nonalignment was not readily accepted in this country. Those who today swear by nonalignment denounced him as a lackey of imperialism. Others were searching for 'genuine nonalignment' but they could not find it.
Even allowing for full freedom of expression of dissent in a democracy, there should be no swerving away from relentlessly pursuing a foreign policy of national interests in the balance of power world.