External affairs minister S. Jaishankar on Thursday ruled out any rethink on the government’s decision not to normalise relations with China without the restoration of peace and tranquillity in the border areas.
Asked if China had occupied Indian territory, the minister avoided a yes-or-no answer. Instead, he said the situation was complicated because both countries had done forward deployment, which needed to be resolved. “Issue is not about territory; issue is of forward deployment. Both armies are standing very close to each other. And this could lead to violence the way it did in Galwan,” he said.
In response to questions asked at his briefing on the nine years of the Narendra Modi government, Jaishankar said: “Fact is, the relationship is impacted and the relationship will continue to be impacted.”
“If there is any expectation that somehow we will normalise while the border situation is not normal, that’s not a well-founded expectation,” the external affairs minister added.
To a specific question on what can be expected in the near future on the India-China front, considering that there have been frequent contacts in recent months, thanks to multilateral fora, the minister said that communications had never broken down.
“Even before Galwan happened, we were talking to the Chinese that we are seeing the movement of forces which in our view is violative of our understanding. Day after Galwan happened, I spoke to my counterpart and since thenwe have engaged — our military commanders have engaged, our embassies have engaged, I have engaged with my counterpart…,” Jaishankar said.
He added that there would be conversations on the sidelines of multilateral meetings but bilateral engagement to take the relationship forward was unlikely.
“China consciously, for some reason, chose in 2020 to break agreements to move forces to the border areas and seek to coerce us. It’s been made very clear to them that until there is peace and tranquillity in the border areas, the relationship cannot progress. That is the obstacle which is holding us back,” Jaishankar said, elaborating on his opening remarks that relationships with all major power centres barring China had progressed since 2014.
Rebuttal to Rahul
Jaishankar sought to counter Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s criticism of the Modi government on the China front — particularly his charge that the Chinese had occupied huge tracts of land since 2020 — with a reminder of the Chinese occupation of Indian territory on the Congress’s watch.
Jaishankar was faced with a slew of questions related to Rahul’s remarks on Indian democracy and the Chinese aggression during the Congress leader’s US visit. Jaishankar had been asked similar questions during his recent South Africa visit, which coincided with Rahul’s US tour, and he had said “watch me when I get back”, labouring the point that he does not like to talk domestic politics overseas.
On Thursday, Jaishankar fielded the questions but gave fairly mellow answers, possibly preferring not to trigger a full-scale war of words with Rahul just ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to the US.
Stating that Rahul was in the habit of criticising the country and commenting on domestic politics — specifically, India’s democratic backsliding — during his travels overseas, Jaishankar said this did not help the Congress leader’s credibility as the world could see that India not only held periodic elections but also witnessed smooth transfers of power.
As for specific questions on the Chinese occupying Indian territory, Jaishankar went back in time to draw attention to areas occupied by China since the late 1950s. He said that some of the recent construction by Beijing that Rahul flagged periodically had been in these areas.
“People make out as if something has happened now. It has been happening for a period of time and we need to focus on what our border infrastructure is, how do we deploy our military and maintain that deployment there.
“A lot of our forward deployment problems are because borders were so badly neglected. I don’t want to go into those statements of ‘our best defence is neglect of the borders so that other people can’t come forward’ but the result was our own troops were very severely disadvantaged when they had to respond…. The average border infrastructure budget in 2014 was less than Rs 4,000 crore. Today, it is Rs 14,000 crore,” he said.
On whether the ministry was in the know of Rahul visiting the White House for a meeting that has been reported about but not officially confirmed, Jaishankar said: “If Rahul Gandhi goes somewhere, that is his call. Why would I have to get involved in it?”