After three months of tense confrontation, the Sino-Indian border standoff has come to a sudden end. The news first came via a press release from India’s Ministry of External Affairs, stating that the two sides had reached an understanding on “disengagement” in the volatile Doklam Plateau.
MEA Press Statement on Doklam Disengagement Understanding pic.twitter.com/fVo4N0eaf8
— Raveesh Kumar (@MEAIndia) August 28, 2017
Conspicuously absent from this terse statement—and a subsequent follow-up from the Ministry—was a clear explanation of the terms of that understanding. Nonetheless, China was quick to tout the result as a win for Chinese diplomacy, and a fulfillment of Beijing’s longstanding demands for a unilateral Indian pullback. In a press conference after the announcement, the Chinese spokeswoman downplayed any notion of mutual disengagement, stressing repeatedly that India had speedily withdrawn its illegally stationed troops. By contrast, she said, Beijing would only “make necessary adjustments” to its deployments on the ground “as it sees fit.” That image of unilateral Indian retreat, combined with the absence of public concessions from the Chinese side, will allow Beijing’s spinmasters to depict the deal as a clear-cut Chinese victory.
But it is far from clear that Beijing actually got the upper hand over New Delhi. Reporting from India suggests that the agreement’s ambiguity allowed the Chinese to save face but disguised a major concession on China’s road construction efforts. From the Hindustan Times:
Neither side spoke officially on the status of the road whose construction by Chinese troops had triggered the standoff in mid-June, but sources said the area had been “almost cleared” and bulldozers had been sent back. Some equipment was still to be cleared because of logistical issues on the Chinese side, the sources said.
This was seen as an indication that China might not press on with the construction of the road for now. India had said the road would alter the status quo in the region and have serious security implications.
If the Chinese did indeed pull back their bulldozers and cease the road construction, it is fair to say that Beijing blinked. The primary goal of India’s intervention, after all, was to stop China from building a road near India’s vulnerable Siliguri Corridor. If India achieved that goal and engineered a successful return to the status quo—while proving that it can stand its ground against its larger rival—it has good reason to be pleased with the results of its diplomacy.
But that does not mean that either side can claim a lasting victory. The current understanding on “disengagement” seems less a lasting settlement than a temporary truce, motivated in part by the desire to calm tensions before the BRICS summit in China next week. And going forward, Bhutan—the tiny kingdom whose territory India entered to block the Chinese incursion—is sure to become a heightened source of diplomatic competition between the two powers. Earlier this month, Beijing offered $10 billion in economic aid to Bhutan to persuade the country to soften its objections to China’s claims. The Chinese may believe they can peel the Bhutanese away from India in the long term, by offering economic carrots and exploiting resentments about India’s overbearing role as the kingdom’s protector.
For now, then, the risks of a dangerous armed conflict between China and India have receded—but the underlying disagreements that motivate their competition are here to stay.