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Mainstream, VOL LV No 37 New Delhi September 2, 2017

End of the Doklam Stand-off: No Winners or Losers

Saturday 2 September 2017

by Purusottam Bhattacharya

The 70-day-old Doklam stand-off on the disputed Himalayan plateau between India and China at the tri-junction of India, China and Bhutan has finally ended with a declaration by the Government of India on August 28, 2017 of a mutual pull-out of troops from the prolonged face-off between the Indian and Chinese soldiers though the Chinese version differs significantly. The present reality, as one understands it, is that while India withdrew all its soldiers to its territory, China drew back most of its military personnel from the area, claimed by both Beijing and Thimphu, keeping some to continue patrolling operations it has long pursued there. The Chinese Government, on the other hand, confirmed the agreement to end the 10-week-long stand-off but went out of its way, obviously for domestic consumption, to emphasise that it was India that pulled out troops, a persistent Chinese demand throughout the crisis, without China making any concessions.

It is significant to take note of the starkly different versions of the statements put out by New Delhi and Beijing to explain how the stand-off ended. While the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) announced that “expeditious disengagement of border personnel at the face-off site in Doklam has been agreed to and is ongoing” (the wording “expeditious


disengagement” was added by the MEA in the evening of August 28), the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson declared: “On the afternoon of August 28 the Indian side has pulled back all the trespassing personnel and equipment to the Indian side of the boundary... Chinese personnel on the ground have verified this, and Chinese troops continue to patrol the area and continue to exercise sovereignty and territorial integrity in accordance with historical conventions.” The spokesperson also added: “I can tell you that China will

make adjustments with the situation on the ground“ (emphasis added), a demand voiced by India, though a section of the Chinese media ignored this aspect of the agreement. The Chinese spokesperson did not directly answer a question about whether the Doklam deadlock was settled. (It would be reasonable to surmise from the usage of the words “make adjustments with the situation on the ground” that it is a piece of Chinese sophistry to acknowledge that Beijing did indeed draw back most of its military personnel from the area).

Significantly the agreement to de-escalate tensions was arrived at six days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to fly to Xiamen in Eastern China to attend the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) summit there when Modi will also meet the Chinese President, Xi Jinping. It is understood that at the bilateral meeting between Xi and Modi the two leaders will try to reset safeguards that have helped the two nations avoid military conflict for half-a- century despite a disputed border. This under-standing has suffered setbacks in recent years. An end to the deadlock at Doklam was also necessary to salvage the BRICS summit on September 3-5, 2017 which is scheduled to be hosted by China, the most powerful country in the grouping which was also locked in this bitter dispute with India, the second most important economy in the five-nation bloc. If the stalemate had not been ended before the summit it would certainly have cast a cloud over the gathering if not scuttled it altogether. There were other compulsions too to which we will return later.

There is no doubt that the limited “under-standing” that was implemented on August 28 deliberately allowed both India and China to claim they had achieved their objectives—to satisfy politically their domestic audiences. One has to remember how the stand-off originated in the first place (its genesis has been in public domain for the past ten weeks), namely, China’s attempt to change the status quo in the Doklam plateau by building a road through what is undoubtedly Bhutanese territory which would have endangered India’s own security by bringing the Siliguri corridor, the so-called ‘Chicken’s Neck’ connecting India’s North-East with the mainland, within the range of Chinese armaments. Incidentally the southern tip of China’s Chumbi valley is only 50 kilometres away from the ‘Chicken’s Neck’. The strategic significance of this attempt on the part of China to change the status quo in the Doklam plateau has to be seen in the perspective of Beijing’s persistent claim that large parts of Arunachal Pradesh are actually China’s Southern Tibet and hence not a part of India. The question, however, remains whether this basic objective of India, that is, to stop China from undertaking the construction of the road in the Doklam plateau altogether has been achieved as there is no sign of any undertaking from China in this regard; the jury will probably be out on that for some time to come.

China, on the other hand, insisted that it had attained its objectives. From the very start Beijing had insisted that Indian troops had to withdraw from the disputed spot to the Indian side of the border as a “precondition” for any resolution. China had held that Beijing enjoyed full sovereignty over the Doklam plateau (completely ignoring Bhutan’s claim to the area); India therefore, according to Beijing, was in ‘Chinese’ territory and was the ‘aggressor’ and must vacate its ‘aggression’. Following the August 28 agreement India did technically withdraw its troops to the Indian side of the border to which the Chinese Foreign Ministry statement, cited above, pointedly referred implying therewith that China has scored a significant triumph over India in this whole episode. It also pointed to the retention of its border guards in the area and the fact that they would continue to patrol the area. (Ironically India never objected to China patrolling the area; it only acted when China tried to change the status quo in the area by trying to build a road as noted above.) However, as one understands, Beijing also pulled back most of the additional soldiers it had deployed to counter Indian troops during the stand-off. (Is it not a case of ‘making adjustments with the situation on the ground’?)

There seems to be a consensus in the Indian foreign policy establishment that the Doklam episode is a diplomatic victory for India. International observers, however, have extra-polated from the statements from the two sides that China has emerged victorious from the stand-off. (BBC News: August 28, 2017) From the information available in the public domain it is known that New Delhi had been persistently trying for a negotiated diplomatic solution while maintaining a firm military stand at the disputed spot. At the same time it redeemed itself very well by not responding in kind to the barrage of threats, invectives and bullying emanating from Beijing throughout this entire episode which only showed the latter in a rather poor light in the eyes of the international community. However, the fact to be noted here is that China made no commitment that its soldiers—at a later date—would not restart efforts at building the road that triggered the spat in the first place. After all, it is China which

is in physical control of the Doklam plateau notwithstanding the illegitimacy of its presence there.

We have been given to understand from information available in public domain that the Chinese side has given assurance that the road-building project has been shelved, at least for the moment. The breathing space that has been gained in the process, one hopes—if this deduction is correct—will give time for diplomacy involving India, China and Bhutan (the original claimant to the Doklam plateau) to arrive at an acceptable formula for all concerned.

In the final analysis, China has not emerged well from the stand-off with India at Doklam. It hardly received any international support, except from its ‘all weather friend’ Pakistan and a brooding silence from Russia. The United States, in spite of the chaos in the Trump Administration, pointedly asked China to settle the issue with India diplomatically while Japan offered open support to India’s position. While it is too early to say so, China’s smaller neighbours in South-East Asia probably drew their own conclusions and will be even more wary of their powerful northern neighbour (which is openly exhibiting jingoism and bullying tactics in Asia) especially in the context of the unresolved South China Sea dispute.

However, India and China need to pick up the pieces and seek to start afresh in view of the very high stakes involved in the bilateral relationship (bilateral trade worth $ 70 billion, big-ticket Chinese investments in India and last, but not the least, the unresolved border dispute which continues to fester and trigger fresh conflicts/stand-offs in ever increasing numbers). It is worth noting in conclusion what former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh used to say in the context of Sino-Indian relationship—that there is enough strategic space in the world, and in Asia in particular, for both China and India to compete, co-operate and grow together. The future of the two countries should be looked at in this spirit and not as permanent enemies.

Dr Purusottam Bhattacharya is a former Professor of International Relations and erstwhile Director, School of International Relations and Strategic Studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata.

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