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‘Extremely difficult phase’: Jaishankar’s status check on India-China relations

India-China relations are going through an “extremely difficult phase” because of Beijing’s actions on the border and it will be difficult to have an Asian century if the two countries don’t come together, external affairs minister S Jaishankar said on Thursday.

Jaishankar also defended India’s decision to purchase Russian oil and the country’s engagement with Myanmar’s junta following last year’s coup in the face of what he described as “double standards” and criticism from far away that didn’t account for India’s priorities.

During an interaction at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand, he said relations between China and India were largely dependent on how the two sides are able to harmonise their interests, and recalled Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s remarks that an Asian century will happen when India and China come together.

“But the Asian century will be difficult to happen if India and China don’t come together. And one of the big questions today is where India-China relations are going,” he said.

“Because at the moment, the relationship is going through an extremely difficult phase because of what the Chinese have done in the last two years in our border areas,” he said, referring to the military standoff in the Ladakh sector of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that the Indian side has attributed to China’s unilateral attempts to alter the status quo.

Jaishankar’s remarks were in marked contrast to the Chinese leadership’s assertions about a “momentum of recovery” in relations when the external affairs minister met Chinese state councillor and foreign minister Wang Yi last month. Jaishankar has also repeatedly said in recent months that the overall relationship cannot be normalised without peace and tranquillity in the border areas.

Responding to a question on India’s decision to buy Russian oil despite criticism from other countries, Jaishankar said there were different “yardsticks of judgement” and even “double standards at times” on this matter.

“We are not the only oil importer and…there are no sanctions on oil,” he said, adding that other countries and regions were being “very articulate” on this issue but have taken care of their own interests.

“I think it’s reasonable that we too be allowed to take care of our interests, particularly because we are a low-income society. For us, the increase in energy prices really hurt,” he said.

India, the third largest consumer of energy, has snapped up discounted Russian crude in recent months. Jaishankar said on Wednesday that India’s actions were aimed at ensuring the best possible deal for its citizens amid high energy prices and shortages.

“When people talk about what we should or should not do, we are paying the price for this conflict in a very, very existential way,” he told the audience at the university. India’s concerns about energy costs, food inflation and shortages were shared by many countries in Asia and Africa, he pointed out.

“It’s simply not fair on people who are struggling to get out of poverty to be expected to take burdens when countries with much higher per capita incomes have found ways of softening the blow on themselves,” he added.

India’s actions, he argued, also helped bring more oil into the market and soften energy prices.

India, Jaishankar said, has been clear and unambiguous that the only way out in the Ukraine conflict is to return to dialogue and diplomacy. “At some stage, the protagonists have to sit down and talk,” he said, adding that the Indian leadership has conveyed this position to both Russia and Ukraine.

“The sooner you talk, the less bloodshed there is,” he said, noting that despite India’s efforts in this regard, a call will ultimately have to be made by the countries involved.

At the same time, India has supported efforts by the UN Secretary-General and Turkey to facilitate exports of wheat from Ukraine and will continue to support all efforts to end the conflict, he said.

Asked whether India’s engagement with Myanmar’s junta was weakening Asean’s efforts to restore democracy, Jaishankar said it was important to take into account context and background and India’s status as an immediate land neighbour.

India has been consistently supportive of democracy, pluralism, human rights and progress in the region, and this trend in Myanmar goes back to the 1950s and even earlier, he said. India’s understanding, interests and empathy “is very different from what people far away convey when they often pontificate on matters which are very different”, he added.

Such a relationship “should not be touched by politics [and] interests of the day”, he said, referring to India’s concerns in border areas such as insurgent groups, organised crime and even the spread of Covid-19.

“We also have to manage our border relationship and the complexities of being a neighbour,” he said. Despite the engagement with the junta, India believes Myanmar is “best served by being a democracy, by reflecting what are the sentiments and wishes of its people”, he added.

In his speech at the event, Jaishankar said India envisages a free, open, inclusive, peaceful, and prosperous Indo-Pacific built on a rules-based order, transparent infrastructure investment, freedom of navigation and over-flight, unimpeded lawful commerce, mutual respect for sovereignty and peaceful resolution of disputes.

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