Manmohan Singh's oft-repeated mantra that there is “enough space” for both India and China in the world took on a new spatial dimension on Friday, with the Prime Minister telling his Chinese counterpart, Wen Jiabao, that Indian exploration activity in the South China Sea was “purely commercial” and the issue of sovereignty over seawaters should be resolved according to international law and practice.

India's commercial prospecting was raised by Dr. Singh in the context of Chinese misgivings over a recent pact between India and Vietnam on oil exploration. Jurisdiction over the territorial waters of the Sea is a bone of contention between China and several south-east Asian nations, including Vietnam.

Without getting involved in rival sovereignty claims, India stressed the importance of freedom of navigation in these waters, a vital trade route. But the Chinese, who fear that Washington is trying to tilt the regional scales against Beijing on this issue, used the ongoing Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) summit platform to deliver a blunt message to the U.S. The South China Sea dispute concerns China and the littoral states alone, and “outside forces should not get involved under any excuse,” Mr. Wen said in his address.

Dr. Singh and Mr. Wen had a 55-minute meeting here on the sidelines of the summit, though the fact that each came in to the room accompanied by more than two dozen officials meant the interaction was purely formal and scripted.

If the South China Sea and border management issues had generated negative vibes between India and China in recent weeks, the two leaders used their meeting to reiterate a shared commitment to develop the “best of relations,” Indian officials said later.

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