To the considerable relief of all parties involved, India and China agreed yesterday to end a 74-day stand-off by their security forces near the trijunction with Bhutan. India initiated the announcement with a short statement that simply said that an “expeditious disengagement of border personnel…has been agreed to and is ongoing.” China confirmed that India had withdrawn border personnel. Its spokesperson added that Beijing would “continue to exercise its sovereignty and uphold its territorial integrity” and reportedly that its forces “will continue to patrol in Doklam region.” Beijing acknowledged that “adjustments” would be made on the ground.
A lot was left unsaid, and deliberately so. China did not say that its own troops had fallen back or that it was calling off the road building activities in the disputed territory that had provoked the stand-off. Equally – and more importantly – Chinese officials did not confirm that road building would continue or deny a disengagement of forces. Affairs had been choreographed so that both sides could claim victory. China was satisfied with Indian forces withdrawing to their prior positions to the west. But India accomplished its objective of ensuring that China would cease road building to its south.
The Doklam situation has provoked a host of commentary, much of it ill-informed, in part due to uncertainty and initially vague reports about its exact location, the competing legal claims made by China, Bhutan, and India, and the extraordinarily harsh rhetoric by China’s officials and state media leading to concerns about escalation. But three questions remain. Why did the situation come about? Why did it end? And what might be the long-term consequences?
The exact reasons and timing for China’s actions which precipitated the impasse on June 16 may never be known. Construction activities meant to strengthen China’s position in disputed territory have become a common practice, including in the South China Sea. It is also now clear that China’s leaders miscalculated, and did not anticipate an Indian intervention as their forces pushed forward in territory disputed with Bhutan. Speculative theories that China intended to teach a lesson to India – including possibly for its boycott of the Belt and Road Initiative – do not withstand scrutiny, given that events unfolded at a site where India had natural advantages.
The reasons for the stand-off’s conclusion are easier to fathom. China had attempted to threaten and cajole India through public messages, mocking videos, and travel advisories intended to limit Chinese tourists from traveling to India. None of that worked. Indian forces were also better positioned on the ground, with more robust supply lines than their Chinese counterparts. The forthcoming BRICS Summit in the south-eastern Chinese city of Xiamen risked being overshadowed. It would have been awkward and embarrassing for China to welcome an Indian prime minister as a guest even as Indian forces were present in (what Beijing believes to be) Chinese territory. Finally, the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party was looming, and an unresolved stand-off with India risked having domestic political ramifications. For these reasons, it was in Beijing’s interest to ensure an early resolution to the stand-off, assuming a face-saving formula could be found.
What are the consequences? In the near future, it heralds a return to some possible normalcy in India-China relations. The two sides demonstrated that, despite the rhetoric, a peaceful and diplomatic solution could be found. But the long-term implications will be more uncertain. India has shown considerable resolve, not just in an effort to protect its own security interests but those of its neighbours. China, meanwhile, has done considerable damage to its reputation in India, less by precipitating the problem, and more by its poor handling of the situation. Whether on the border or beyond – in other domains, including regional security, multilateral affairs, or economic and trade relations – it would not be surprising if New Delhi was to approach its relations with Beijing with greater wariness. Particularly following its behaviour on the South China Sea, it would be natural for India not to trust Chinese promises on the disputed frontier, but to continue to remain vigilant.
If the Chinese state has hurt its reputation, so has the press, which did not acquit itself very well over the course of the past two months. The Chinese media resorted to ugly taunts and uglier threats. The Indian media, while more tepid, was often speculative and sometimes wildly misleading. Both the Indian and the international media were particularly insensitive in their portrayal of Bhutan, whose government proved admirably level-headed in what was an extraordinarily delicate and occasionally tense situation. But even the resolution of the impasse produced confident interpretations by journalists who lacked both immediate information and broader context.
Doklam shows that a military confrontation between two nuclear-armed powers can be resolved diplomatically, and without escalation. But for China’s leadership there is perhaps a need for introspection about why it let relations with India deteriorate so sharply for no material gain.