The months-long border standoff between China and India on the Doklam plateau, an obscure patch of disputed land near Bhutan in the Himalayas, came to a sudden close in the final days of August – days before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Xiamen BRICS nations summit.
Weeks of behind-the-scenes diplomatic effort succeeded in defusing what once appeared to be a high-stakes and intractable crisis.
The Indian and Chinese foreign ministries released statements on Monday acknowledging a drawdown. While each country’s statement about the details of the end to the standoff varied in emphasis, there was no apparent contradiction.
India highlighted an “understanding” between the two sides that led to the “expeditious disengagement of border personnel at the face-off site,” just 60 odd meters from the Indian Army’s outpost on the Bhutanese border at Doka La.
Reports later confirmed that India had secured a withdrawal of Chinese troops – including construction crews – from the site of the standoff.
China, meanwhile, chose to emphasize a different point in its statements. Its foreign ministry spokeswoman carefully underlined that Indian troops had withdrawn from the territory at the center of the standoff – territory that China sees as unquestionably Chinese.
What was left unaddressed in both statements was the question that sparked the standoff. Indian Army troops crossed a ridge on June 16 separating the Indian state of Sikkim from what New Delhi sees as the territory of its ally, Bhutan. They crossed over to prevent the extension of an existing road by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.
During the near three-month-long standoff, India and Bhutan sought a simple outcome – the restoration of the status quo at Doklam to conditions before June 16. In short, India and Bhutan sought to prevent the extension of the existing road that had been used by China for years.
The denouement of the Doklam standoff highlighted that New Delhi succeeded in attaining this outcome – all without Bhutan having to diverge from its carefully calculated position of silence. Bhutan does not have normal diplomatic relations with China and the two countries have several outstanding territorial disputes beyond Doklam.
China, meanwhile, claimed that it would continue patrols in the area, as it did prior to the start of the standoff, and, more ambiguously, to exercise “sovereignty” in the area. The statement from the Chinese offered Beijing a face-saving way out of the impasse.
New Delhi’s sober official reaction did not stop the chest-thumping in much of the Indian media about the Indian “victory”.
Of course, Doklam was always about more than a road on an obscure piece of disputed territory. Yes, Indian strategists feared the implications of China’s military potentially extending the road a few kilometres south, but ultimately, Doklam was about how Asia’s two large, nuclear-armed, rising powers saw each other.
In the lead-up to the standoff, India had already sharply rebuked President Xi’s signature “Belt and Road” international trade initiative. It released a sharply worded statement clarifying the conditions that must underlie infrastructure and connectivity initiatives in Asia.
New Delhi’s opposition was borne of its genuinely divergent interests, but also served as a mode of paying back Beijing for its refusal to support India’s accession as a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, an international group aimed at countering the export of equipment to make nuclear weapons, plus its tendency to go to bat for its ally Pakistan at the United Nations.
For China, the experience at Doklam will serve as a source of important lessons on everything ranging from New Delhi’s resolve when its national security interests are involved to India’s self-conception as a great power in Asia. The standoff was an illustration that if China sought to put India in its place, so to speak, after the public opposition to its “Belt and Road” initiative, it would have to expend greater resources and expose itself to more risk.
Once it became clear that the two ways out of the impasse at Doklam were a military conflict that neither side wanted or the solution that was eventually reached –India’s desired final goal – diplomacy prevailed.
What comes after the Doklam saga will matter greatly for the relationship between China and India. They will remain side by side, their border will remain disputed. Their relationship will maintain an uneasy balance between cooperation in some matters and intense competition in others.
The end of the standoff restores this state of affairs. What remains to be seen is if the bitter experience at Doklam leaves a lasting stain on how India and China see each other.