India foreign minister says China thaw hinges on border peace

Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s external affairs minister, speaks to Nikkei Asia on May 20.

KIRAN SHARMA and MOYURU BABA, Nikkei staff writers | India

NEW DELHI — India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar on Thursday said improvement in his country’s relations with China hinges on addressing the situation along their border, where peace and tranquillity has been “disturbed by Chinese actions starting last year.”

“In terms of what is happening in our discussions with China, there are ongoing discussions, both diplomatic and military-level discussions on the situation in the border areas,” he told Nikkei Asia in an exclusive interview on the sidelines of this year’s Future of Asia conference.

“We are very clear that the [Line of Actual Control] must be observed and respected and that no attempt to unilaterally change the status quo is acceptable to us,” he said. “But we have also made it very clear to the Chinese both privately and publicly that our relationship is based on peace and tranquillity in the border areas. If that is disturbed then the relationship is disturbed.”

The Line of Actual Control, or LAC, is a 3,500 km de facto boundary between the fractious neighbors. A clash along the border in the Himalayas last June left 20 Indian soldiers dead. In February, China admitted for the first time that four of its soldiers were also killed.

Although the two sides agreed to a troop pullout earlier this year, negotiations do not appear to have made much progress since.

“If we have both agreed that the relationship should improve, then we need to address the situation in the border areas. So that is what is happening right now. It is not an easy issue but we are very clear, we are very committed,” Jaishankar said.

In response to another question on the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, the minister said the grouping’s four participants — India, the U.S., Japan and Australia — have a responsibility to make sure a free and open Indo-Pacific is maintained.

Jaishankar said that before COVID-19 struck, much of the conversation within the Quad was on maritime security, connectivity and technologies. “This year, obviously given the COVID, [our] focus has been on vaccines and supply chains. … In a sense, Quad is looking at the region and partnerships as a way of meeting global demands and concerns in a more effective, transparent, acceptable way.”

The minister also touched on the coronavirus situation back home in the wide-ranging interview, saying there is “unpredictability” about when the country’s current wave of infections — which has seen daily cases cross 400,000 — will peak. He also said India is targeting production of over 2 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses by this year.

“We are looking at about eight vaccines … to come onstream as the year progresses,” he said. But he added there are two “big issues.” One is the relaxation of patents so that more companies are allowed to make the doses. The second is the need for a smoother vaccine supply chain.

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