NEW DELHI: India and China cannot have a “tense, high friction border” and have great relations in all other spheres, especially after Beijing violated clear cut commitments in two agreements on not massing forces on the frontier, external affairs minister S Jaishankar said on Thursday.

Participating in a virtual conversation at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, Jaishankar listed India’s three top foreign policy priorities as focusing on countries in the extended neighbourhood, including Central and West Asia, good relations with big powers shaping the world order to advance the country’s interests, and developing a larger footprint for India.

The challenges related to Afghanistan outlined in UN Security Council resolution 2593, which was passed two weeks after the Taliban takeover in mid-August, continue to be “live concerns” and justify the prudence displayed by India, which has been very careful in its assessments regarding the war-torn country, he said during a wide-ranging discussion. Jaishankar said two agreements with China contained no ambiguity on the issue of bringing forces to the border, as everything was laid down in “cold print”. He added, “There were very, very clear cut commitments not to mass forces on the border and those commitments stand violated as of 2020 spring.”

He was referring to the standoff in the Ladakh sector of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), which began in May 2020. Bilateral relations are yet to recover from the fallout of a brutal clash at Galwan Valley in June last year that resulted in the death of 20 Indian soldiers and at least four Chinese troops. Both sides have deployed some 50,000 troops each in the sector and several rounds of diplomatic and military talks have not led to disengagement at all the friction points.

Jaishankar said: “And as we have made clear – the state of the relationship, at the end of the day, will reflect the state of the border. You can’t have a tense, high friction border and have great relations in all other parts of life. It doesn’t work that way.”

It was inevitable that the standoff has “already spilt over into other domains and the expectation that somehow we will contain it in a narrow sense and carry on with the rest of life, I think, is not a realistic one”, he added.

“We do have a significant issue there for us, and also for them because I frankly don’t think it’s in the interest of either country that our relationship goes off in this direction,” Jaishankar said.

The Chinese side attempted to “unilaterally change the status quo or to violate the LAC”, and troops from both sides were “sometimes uncomfortably closely deployed”. With the standoff in Ladakh continuing for close to two years, there are now question marks against the assumptions, understandings and agreements which guided the management of border areas, he added.

Asked about his foreign policy priorities, the foreign secretary-turned-minister said in geographic terms, these are the extended neighbourhood, including the Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia, West Asia and Central Asia, having good relations with the big powers which shape the global order “so that we are treated well and our interests are recognised and advanced”, and steadily developing a larger footprint through more relationships in order to have global visibility. In terms of issues, Jaishankar listed his number one priority as national security, which he put above all considerations in diplomacy as the stakes are very high. He contended that the country “sometimes got confused” on this issue in the past, such as during the 1960s, when the leadership didn’t put the necessary emphasis on security.

He listed the two other priorities in terms of issues as economic development and national progress, where India could learn from East and Southeast Asia on using foreign policy to acquire capital and technology, and advancing the standing of the country. While speaking about the situation in Afghanistan, Jaishankar said UN Security Council resolution 2593, passed two weeks after the Taliban takeover, was an “expression of a widespread concern in the world on a set of issues, the most prominent of which was would Afghan soil be used by terrorists [and] foreign fighters to target other countries”.

The resolution also addresses issues such as the nature of the regime in Kabul and whether it would be inclusive, and the nature of governance, including the treatment of women, children and minorities, and freedom of movement for Afghans.

“I would say a lot of those concerns...remain live concerns,” Jaishankar said. The situation on the ground is complicated and justifies the prudence that India has shown. India has not been in a hurry, it has been deliberative about choices and careful about assessments, while at the same time not being led by arguments made by others, he said.

There is also consensus on the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan about not “staying away or being indifferent or unhelpful”. He said the consensus is that “however difficult the politics of the situation may be...we have to do something [for the Afghan people]”.

India has helped previous regimes in Afghanistan, and it has offered to send 50,000 tonnes of wheat for the Afghan people. The country is seeking unhindered access to Afghanistan and is trying to find a way the relief supplies are distributed in a responsible and fair manner, he said, without referring to conditions attached by Pakistan for the shipment of the aid.

Jaishankar also indicated that the LAC standoff with China was not a “causal factor” for India’s participation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad, which includes Australia, Japan and the US. He noted that the Quad, in its current incarnation started in September 2017, whereas the current difficulties on the LAC began in 2020.

It is important for India as a Quad participant “to be very clear that the Quad is for something, it is not against somebody”, he pointed out. Quad’s efforts are focused on issues such as Covid-19 vaccines, developing more trusted and secure technologies, promoting reliable and resilient supply chains, connectivity projects, and ensuring maritime security and safety. Since no single country can respond to the contemporary big challenges, groups of countries with similar interests and concerns were coming together, he said. In this context, he referred to India’s four-way cooperation with the United Arab Emirates, Israel and the US.

These are “combos of countries” that are not interested in a formal relationship and wanting no “detailed obligations or responsibilities”. Instead, they want a practical arrangement to work together to their mutual advantage through “ad hoc, open minded, open ended and comfortable” mechanisms, Jaishankar said.

Asked about India’s participation in The Summit of Democracy to be hosted by the US during December 9-10, Jaishankar said he is “very confident” about the state of Indian democracy since elections and the electoral process are not in doubt, popular participation in elections is rising, and all indexes of “how democratised India has become” are growing.

“In a way, in the very success lies a problem because to a large extent it has brought to the political forefront a different set of players, people who are not from big cities or from English medium schools,” he said, adding many of these players are self-made and this has led to a “political argumentation between the old order and emerging order within the country”.

“Because the world is globalised, the world is polarised and the world is very ideological, a lot of this translates into people being judgemental [and saying] your democracy is not working well, largely because it’s not about people like us anymore,” he added.