India’s foreign minister has blamed China for last year’s deadly skirmishes along their Himalayan border and warned of greater economic consequences unless peace was restored.
Almost a year later, tensions remain high along the disputed boundary in the inhospitable Ladakh region, where at least 21 Indian soldiers and four Chinese soldiers were killed.
Both countries still have tens of thousands of troops, and significant amounts of military hardware, deployed. Military officials have held 11 rounds of talks on troop withdrawals but progress has been slow.
Speaking at a Financial Times-Indian Express event on “India, China and the US: A New Geopolitical landscape?”, S Jaishankar said the Sino-Indian relationship was at a turning point. He added bilateral ties would continue to suffer until calm was restored on the border, which he described as the foundation of trade and economic links.
“The relationship is at a crossroads and which direction we go depends on . . . the Chinese side.
“If you disturb the peace and tranquillity, if you have bloodshed, if there is intimidation, if there is continuing friction on the border, then obviously it is going to tell on the relationship.”
India retaliated against Chinese companies after the border bloodshed, banning hundreds of popular Chinese mobile phone apps. It also announced this month that it was starting 5G trials with a dozen companies, from which China’s Huawei and ZTE were excluded.
Jaishankar said India was “ready to compete” with China for influence in its neighbourhood and beyond, citing India’s interests “deep in the Indo-Pacific” as well as west towards Africa and Europe.
“It’s not like I expect I will progress in world politics without contestation and without competition.
“I am ready to compete — that is not the issue for me,” he added. “The issue is, how do I manage a relationship if the basis of the relationship has been violated by one side?”
India has been battered by a second Covid-19 wave that has forced it to stop exporting vaccines, much to the frustration of its south Asian neighbours — and several African nations — that were depending on the country’s Serum Institute for their own inoculation programmes.
But India’s struggle to contain the coronavirus crisis, and its inability to meet the international demand for its vaccines, has hurt its global standing and raised questions about its ability to compete with China.
“India’s image has taken a beating,” said Uday Bhaskar, director of the Society for Policy Studies, a New Delhi think-tank. “India’s self-image is of a country deemed to be a leading power. But until this pandemic is over, I don’t think India would be counted among the big players. You don’t have the capacity, you have to deal with your internal crisis.”
In India’s absence, China is stepping into the vacuum, offering its own vaccines as an alternative to countries in India’s backyard.
Jaishankar rebuffed suggestions that New Delhi would join any formal alliance with the US to contain China, and played down suggestions that the Quad — an informal group consisting of the US, Japan, India and Australia — was an incipient Asian Nato.
“It is not cold war 2.0. You don’t have that kind of sharp military confrontation that cold war 1.0 did.”