Doklam standoff ends: A satisfactory resolution for India but it must guard against complacency and China's revanchism
As long as China resists from altering status quo in Doka La, it doesn't matter which country withdrew it's troops first
Nearly 24 hours after the dice was rolled to end the Doka La standoff, media in India and China have reacted on predictable lines. The Chinese have focused on the aspect that Indian troops have ultimately pulled out of the disputed area over which it claims sovereignty, Indians have interpreted it as a loss of face for China after being forced to revert to status quo ante.
It is irrelevant beyond a point to consider who 'won' or 'lost' in Doka La, and that is how it should be. This was a negotiation between sovereign nations, not a T20 tie. Both nuclear nations deserve applause for not letting the prolonged military standoff from descending into a conflict that would have inevitably gone out of control, caused devastation in the region and heaped enormous costs on both peoples.
In a testament to the power of diplomacy, official statements from both sides remain open to multiple interpretations. Diplomatic resolutions usually achieve more than armed encounters ever do but unlike wars, they do not throw up unequivocal winners. That is a good thing, because the stability of a diplomatic resolution depends chiefly on it being sold domestically, and no country can walk away from a wrangle with its tail between legs.
The ambiguity that we see in the respective official statements is purposeful. For a clear assessment of the ground situation as it exists post 28 August, we must parse what has been said, take a look at how the information was released, decipher the subtext of the statements and also make reasonable calculations on what has been left unsaid.
To begin, the first Indian statement released around noon on Monday was scarce. It spoke only of an "expeditious disengagement of border personnel at the face-off site at Doklam" and added that it "has been agreed to and is on-going."
This was immediately picked up and interpreted as an end of the impasse. But it wasn't clear at this stage whether this was a unilateral withdrawal. Chinese statements were equally unclear, stressing only that "India has agreed to withdraw its troops and equipment" and "Chinese side will continue to patrol Doklam region and exercise sovereignty".
On the face of it, there was an impression that India "has capitulated". Was that really the case? Let's look at the statements more carefully.
India's first media release talked of an agreement to disengage "border personnel at the face-off site". It could mean both a unilateral and a mutual disengagement. China highlighted India's "withdrawal" and stressed that it will continue to "patrol" the region. Point is, if Chinese troops had stayed put at the "face-off site", where was the question of "patrolling"? As for "exercising sovereignty", Beijing has been, for decades, claiming that small patch of land as its own and has held 24 rounds of inconclusive bilateral talks with Bhutan. India makes no territorial claims.
The bone of contention therefore wasn't Chinese patrolling or "claiming of sovereignty" over Doka La but widening of the road in the sensitive spot. It was reasonably clear that "both sides had withdrawn their troops" but this was communicated differently. A quiet complicity in language was missed by those unwilling to scratch the surface.
India's second statement, however, made it clear that the withdrawal was mutual. But this was released after a considerable time gap during which Chinese spin on the statement had been widely circulated. This time, India said quite clearly that "expeditious disengagement of border personnel of India and China at the face-off site at Doklam was ongoing. This process has since been almost completed under verification".
The term verification is important, given China's machinations over South China Sea littoral where it continued to alter topography even after claiming to desist.
However, the clarification left no space for doubt that both countries had withdrawn in troops but time gap leads one to believe that even though the disengagement was simultaneous, the Chinese were allowed the benefit of time (if only for a few hours) to claim that they withdrew PLA troops only after India has done so.
This is important because China had put itself into a spot of bother over its vituperative rhetoric and ultimatums to India about "unilateral withdrawal" as a precondition and nothing less than this choreography would have given it a political face-saver. India had less of a problem here because its goals were limited. 1. Stop China from building roads in Doklam. 2. Return to status quo. So as long as China resists from doing so, it doesn't matter whether Indian troops withdrew first and the Chinese followed suit.
So this brings us to the real bone of contention. Has China given a clear, official assurance about ceasing road building efforts? The answer is no. If that is the case, why did India suddenly withdraw its troops after staying put for 10 weeks?
A degree of speculation is necessary to understand this, but not unreasonably so. On Monday night, Chinese foreign ministry tied itself up in knots while briefing reporters on whether it will stop road-building efforts. It admitted that "in light of the changing landscape on the ground, China will make necessary adjustments and deployment," but repeated no less than four times in a single briefing that "China will continue fulfilling its sovereign rights to safeguard territorial sovereignty in compliance with the stipulations of the border-related historical treaty."
What are the takeaways from the laborious effort? China needed a face-saver, and this ambiguity was the only way it could politically sell the strategic setback of restoring status quo ante. Some commentators have asked why India has not called China's bluff? The answer is, India's aim from the beginning was not to publicly humiliate China but to find a solution for an impasse that appears reasonable for all parties.
India gains nothing by denying China its political space for maneuvering, and it could well be that a solution was incumbent on this allowance.
As for the facts on the ground, they are quite clear. Multiple sources have confirmed that Beijing has stopped all road-building efforts at Doka La and withdrawn all equipment from the face-off site, even the flag.
All road building equipment has been withdrawn by Chinese side including bulldozers, tents & construction equipment: Official sources to ANI
— ANI (@ANI) August 28, 2017
China obviously cannot confirm this, because its escape route is built on flimsy deception. However, Beijing should be applauded for dropping enough hints despite soaring political costs for Xi Jinping, just before the 19th Party Congress. On Tuesday, it stopped just short of affirming the development.
Asked if China has stopped and will continue road construction in Doklam, China's Foreign Ministry today leaves it somewhat ambiguous: pic.twitter.com/LFMjO5I5DW
— Ananth Krishnan (@ananthkrishnan) August 29, 2017
While the impasse may have ended satisfactorily for India, there is no reason for New Delhi to count its laurels. It must remember that the avoidance of armed conflict owes as much to diplomatic, operation and strategic efforts as to some factors that were outside its control.
As Abhijit Iyer-Mitra, senior fellow at the at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies writes in Business Standard, "Sadly for Xi, even the stars conspired against him. It would have been particularly gut-wrenching for him to host Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the BRICS summit on Sunday, with Indian troops squatting on allegedly Chinese soil – an ironic replay of when his troops were squatting on our soil while Xi was being feted in Ahmadabad. There was also no way to reschedule the 19th party Congress of the Chinese communist party… At some point, Xi Jinping just decided to cut his losses and prevent this from spiralling into a bigger fiasco. It is to India’s credit that it avoided triumphalism and limited his public loss of face."
However, given China's recent history as a revanchist nation and a regional bully, it is only a matter of time before it tries to repeat Doka La elsewhere , may be at a more strategically suitable location. New Delhi can ill afford to be complacent. Media reports indicate that Union home minister Rajnath Singh wants to expedite construction of 23 roads along India's border with China. This is of paramount importance. Equally, India must increase its defence spending and speed up military modernization. A joint theatre command should also be actively considered.
A bully like China operates on threat perception and respects only the language of strength. On Doka La its revanchist game plan was laid bare. Try salami tactic, intimidation, media-driven psychological war, and retreat only when met with resolve but not before claiming victory through rhetoric. India may hope that this will lead to a resolution of border disputes through negotiations but must be prepared for more Chinese misadventures.
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