Why the India-China standoff near the Sikkim border happened at all and how it ended on August 28 after seventy one long and anxious days will never be fully known.
The Indian government maintains cryptically that «following diplomatic communications, expeditious disengagement of border personnel of India and China at the face-off site at Doklam» took place.
It falls far short of claiming any mutual agreement or understanding – or of any mutual withdrawal as such. And it says nothing about China stopping the road-building activity, either, which had apparently led to the standoff in the first instance.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has been far more forthcoming. It put on record that:
- As a result of diplomatic representations and «effective countermeasures» at the military level, the Indian side «withdrew» all its personnel and equipment.
- The Chinese personnel «onsite have verified» the fact of Indian withdrawal.
- The Chinese troops «continue with their patrolling and stationing» in Doklam area.
- China will «adjust and deploy its military resources» in the area to meet the needs of guarding the border.
- China has long been undertaking road-building in the area and will in future «make proper building plans in light of the actual situation», taking into account weather conditions.
New Delhi has not disagreed with these Chinese contentions. Instead, what we have is a series of unattributed, calibrated, self-serving media leaks intended to portray the Indian officials as strong-willed men who stared down the Chinese.
This is rather tragi-comic, given the geopolitical reality that the standoff is a watershed event in India-China relations and regional politics. The Chinese Defence Ministry thought it necessary to warn Delhi to learn the «lesson» from the standoff.
The picture that emerges from the stated position by the two foreign ministries is that the Indian side is loathe to admit its unilateral withdrawal from Doklam and the Chinese side is disinterested in displaying triumphalism.
Clearly, with the brief summer season shortly ending in the tangled mountains in Doklam region at 11000 feet altitude, India managed to stall road-building activity by the Chinese side during this calendar year.
China on the other hand claims that the peaceful handling of the incident «demonstrates China's sincerity and attitude in preserving regional peace and stability as a responsible major country. The Chinese government values its good-neighbourly and friendly relations with India».
For both countries, it is a gain that the BRICS summit in Xiamen has had a full quorum of attendance. The BRICS is a valuable platform to advance multipolarity in the international system.
What prompted India to unilaterally withdraw troops? To quote a China expert in Delhi, «In the face of mounting Chinese psychological pressure on asymmetries, combined with coercive diplomacy and deployment of lethal equipment, the Indian announcement of ‘disengagement’ at Doklam comes as no surprise».
Indeed, there were reports backed by video and photographic evidence of China moving trainloads of advanced HQ-16 and HQ-17 missiles and other military equipment to Tibet. China was reinforcing its layered air defence systems to counter Indian air power, hinting at serious preparations for a military offensive.
Conceivably, if a conflict were to take place, that would have been most likely in September after the BRICS summit but well before the 19th National Congress of China’s Communist Party which is set for October 18.
However, two other factors also must be noted. One, the Indian economy’s growth has slowed down to around 5.7% (April-June), the slowest rate in the three years of Modi government. A war with China would cripple the economy.
Second, no country voiced support for India, leave alone criticise China, on the Doklam affair. The unkindest cut of all was that the Trump administration looked away. Washington and Tokyo are hardly in a position to take an adversarial stance vis-à-vis China over Doklam when North Korea is in their crosshairs.
Some Indian analysts boast India has become a role model for Southeast Asian nations which have territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea. But that is a stretch. On the contrary, China has displayed that on issues of territorial sovereignty, there is no compromise possible.
India can expect Chinese diplomacy in the South Asian region to display for the first time an animus against India. Countries such as Nepal, Sri Lanka or the Maldives will increasingly play off China against India.
The challenge becomes acute in regard of India’s future relations with Bhutan, the friend on whose behalf India stuck out its neck, but which kept a Delphian silence. In a press release on August 29, Bhutanese government simply said:
«Bhutan welcomes the disengagement by the two sides at the face-off site in the Doklam area. We hope this contributes to the maintenance of peace and tranquility and status quo along the borders of Bhutan, China and India in keeping with the existing agreements between the respective countries».
The statement is wide open to interpretation. There was no reference in it to road building activity by the Chinese. Indeed, there is a real possibility of the Chinese resuming road building activities in the border region in Doklam next year.
Prof. Taylor Fravel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who is regarded as an authority on China’s borders, wrote last week,
«Before the standoff in June, China’s permanent presence in the area had been quite limited. China had maintained a road in the area for several decades, but did not garrison any forces. In contrast, India has maintained and developed a forward post at Doka La adjacent to Doklam… China may well seek to rectify this tactical imbalance of forces. In fact, the Chinese spokesperson suggested a move in this direction by saying China would continue to station forces (zhushou), most likely a reference to troops deployed to Doklam after the standoff began. If China does this, it would likely build facilities farther away from India’s position at Doka La, making it more challenging for India to intervene and block China next time. When India challenged China’s construction crews in June, it only had to move its forces a hundred meters from the existing border. In the future, India may be faced with the uncomfortable choice of deciding whether to risk much more to deny China a greater presence farther inside Doklam or to accept it. This will be a tough decision for any leader to make».
The real lesson, therefore, that India should learn from the Doklam standoff is that it shouldn’t draw any wrong conclusion. India’s focus should be on deploying diplomacy to reduce or eliminate the scope for military confrontation.
In retrospect, if only Modi government’s accent was on effective diplomacy in the crucial 3 weeks since the Chinese notified Delhi in late May of their intention to commence the road-building work at Doklam, the standoff might even have been avoided. For some strange reason, instead of activating the diplomatic levers, India resorted to military intervention.
However, the dismal picture through the past week is that the very same hollow men who probably took the fateful decision on Doklam by ordering the Indian Army to cross the international border are now falling back on their media management skills to mislead the domestic opinion into believing that India «won» in Doklam, and China «lost».
The danger here is that the «core constituency» of the Modi government would continue to harbour the foolish notion that, taking the sports analogy further, India should now proceed to claim the trophy by putting China on the mat conclusively and forever.