Is the Doklam Stand-off Winding Down?

Is the Doklam stand-off, now almost 50 days old, really cooling off? On Wednesday, Ajai Shukla of the newspaper Business Standard reported that ‘top army sources’ say both sides have reduced troop numbers at the site of the stand-off.

According to Shukla, Chinese troop levels are ‘now down to just 40, from a peak of over 300 at the end of June.’

‘Meanwhile, many Indian troops have also been pulled back. From a peak of almost 400 at the height of the crisis, there are now just 150 Indian soldiers in the contested Doklam bowl.’

However, as a precaution, the Indian army has a brigade of 3,000 troops on stand-by to deal with any contingency, according to Shukla.

Shukla reported that ‘Business Standard understands that Beijing and New Delhi have reached an understanding to mutually withdraw troops from the contested area, regardless of their public postures.’

Other reporting contradicts Shukla. That same afternoon, a story from PTI’s KJ Varma indicated there appeared to be no breakthrough between the two sides. Varma queried China’s foreign ministry about what happened when India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval met his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi  in Beijing during a BRICS security summit last Thursday and Friday. (Both men are also special representatives of their countries for India-China border talks.)

A written reply from the Chinese foreign ministry was less than encouraging.

‘Yang Jiechi expressed China’s stern positions and explicit requirements on the trespass of Indian border troops into China’s territory at the Sikkim section of China-India boundary,’ it said according to the PTI story.

Details on the ground situation also came from other reporters. On Wednesday, NDTV’s Vishnu Som cited ‘Indian sources’ that reiterated that 400 troops remained in the contested area. And on Thursday, a story from Shubhajit Roy and Sushant Singh of The Indian Express reported that about 350 Indian soldiers remained in place and that no troop reduction had taken place.

So far, no other reporting has agreed with Shukla’s story- but a Chinese government paper seems to partially back him up.

China’s Statement

The flurry of reporting on troops levels in Doklam comes after China’s foreign ministry released a document on the stand-off on Wednesday. Pages 1-2 of the 15-page document describe the so-called ‘illegal trespass’ by up to 400 Indian troops in uncompromising language. But the passage ends with a remarkable sentence: ‘As of the end of July, there were still over 40 Indian border troops and one bulldozer illegally staying in the Chinese territory.’

The paper makes no mention of Chinese troops withdrawals. Instead, it restates China’s position on the boundary dispute and ends with an admonishment that is worth quoting in full:

‘The Chinese side urges the Indian government to keep in mind the larger interest of bilateral relations and the well-being of the two peoples, abide by the 1890 Convention and the delimited China-India boundary established therein, respect China’s territorial sovereignty, observe the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence and other basic principles of international law and basic norms governing international relations, immediately withdraw its trespassing border troops back to the Indian side of the boundary and conduct a thorough investigation into the illegal trespass so as to swiftly and appropriately resolve the incident and restore peace and tranquility to the border area between the two countries.’

India’s Ministry of External Affairs responded to the 15-page document with a short statement on Thursday. ‘India’s position on this issue and related facts have been articulated in our press statement of June 30, 2017. India considers that peace and tranquillity in the India-China border areas is an important prerequisite for smooth development of our bilateral relations with China,’ it said.

It is not every day that one sovereign country tells another to ‘conduct a thorough investigation’ into its own actions, but there has been little normal in China’s reaction to the Doklam standoff.

A quiet agreement?

Despite the imperious tone of the Chinese government’s statements, it is conceivable that both sides have reached some sort of limited understanding in private. Secrecy is the oxygen of crisis diplomacy, and it’s possible both governments are, for the moment, sticking to their old stances in public in an effort to manage domestic opinion.

What is less clear, is what concessions such a deal would involve. If both sides withdraw, do negotiations follow? If so, on what basis? Also, if the Chinese believe a mutual withdrawal benefits India more, have they extracted private concessions? There have, for instance, been occasional suggestions among Indian observers that the country could agree to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a project it has thus far boycotted.

There may be worse outcomes in a military stand-off than making a few reversible concessions.

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