The Doklam De-escalation

India and China have agreed to end their 10-week-long standoff in Doklam, but the contours of the deal remain unclear.

An MEA statement on Monday evening said 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.’

Neither the statement released in the evening nor one made earlier in the day clearly indicated if Chinese troops were also withdrawing.

China’s foreign ministry in turn said it was pleased to note that Indian ‘individuals and facilities’ had withdrawn.

‘The situation on the spot has changed,’ said Hua Chunying, spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry, ‘and China will adjust and deploy according to the current situation.’

Essentials of the deal

Whether Monday’s de-escalation is a win for India or China hinges on two factors. The first, and less important one, is whether both sides are withdrawing their troops. Here it’s worth noting that the Indian and Chinese statements do not contradict each other. While it’s clear that Indian soldiers pulled back from their positions, Hua’s admission that China will ‘adjust and deploy’ sounds an awful lot like a sequenced withdrawal. It’s likely that after weeks of belligerently insisting Indian troops withdraw unconditionally, the Chinese needed an off-ramp that would allow them to save face. That would best explain the careful words from both governments, including Hua’s meaningless assertion that Chinese forces would ‘continue to patrol and garrison in the Doklam area’. (India has not objected to Chinese patrols in the region.)

The second, and more crucial factor is China’s road construction. After all, Indian Army soldiers rushed into the Doklam area on June 18 to block the Chinese from extending an unpaved road to the nearby high ground of the Jampheri ridge. Indian and Chinese statements on Monday did not make any mention of the road in dispute. However, when asked about the road on Tuesday, Hua hinted that the Chinese had halted work on it. “We will make an overall assessment of the weather conditions and all related factors, and according to the actual circumstances complete construction plans,” she said.

Separately, reporting in India, citing anonymous government sources has confirmed Chinese bulldozers have moved out of the area and that road building has ceased, at least for the moment.

Caveats Apply

While the two likely outcomes- mutual troop withdrawal and a halt to road construction signal a narrow tactical win for India, a few notes of caution are in order.

For one, the Chinese have made no commitment to keep off road building. They could resume work at any time – perhaps even while Indian prime minister Narendra Modi is attending the BRICS Summit in the Chinese city of Xiamen from September 3-5. (It’s worth remembering China reneged on an explicit commitment to back off during the Scarborough Reef faceoff with the Philippines in 2012.)

Alternately, the Chinese could build up their infrastructure to the rear, and make it harder for India to intervene when the PLA’s salami slicing approaches the Jampheri ridge. As Ankit Panda of The Diplomat perceptively notes, ‘China always has the option of fortifying PLA positions at or north of the Sinche-La ridgeline, in undisputed territory or even well in the Chumbi Valley. Another option is that the PLA chooses to fortify existing positions along its road, but east of Torsa Nala.’

Finally, China has the option of testing India along the LAC – as it has been doing in Ladakh over the last two weeks.

Strategic Outcomes

However pleasing they may be, the gains India seems to have made on the ground in Doklam are modest. Tactically, the Doklam stand-off resembled the 2013 and 2014 encounters on the LAC between Indian and Chinese troops. Under normal circumstances, it would have been resolved in a few days after a flag meeting between brigadier or major-general-level officers. The Chinese instead chose to escalate matters for reasons that are not yet clear. This made Doklam more than a localized dispute: Suddenly all the world became a stage and India and China were its players, locked in a battle of wills. By agreeing to an ambiguous settlement that allowed Xi Jinping and the senior leadership to save face, India lost an opportunity to send a clear signal to the neighbourhood that it would stand up to China.

To be fair, more details of the Doklam deal could become public in the weeks ahead and perhaps make it clear that India prevailed on the ground. However, there are downsides to letting the Chinese leadership get away without any cost to themselves. As far back as 2001, during the Hainan Island incident, the Chinese upped the ante by demanding an apology from the US for what was essentially an aviation accident. It took a letter from then-president George W. Bush saying he was ‘very sorry’ for the loss of a Chinese pilot, to secure the release of 24 crewmembers of a US Navy EP-3E aircraft.

In both 2017 and 2001, the diplomats facing the Chinese may have made the right decision by letting Beijing’s political elites save face. But we should be aware that this creates a moral hazard, allowing the Chinese leadership to conclude they can continue to engage in public brinksmanship and seek a way out if that fails.

More substantially, we must also concede what we do not know: Deals made to defuse crises frequently involve secret agreements that do not come to light for years. Most famously, during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, US president John F. Kennedy and his Soviet counterpart Nikita Khrushchev agreed that the US would  remove obsolete Jupiter missiles from Turkey at a later date without either side revealing that the withdrawal was part of the deal to diffuse the standoff. It is conceivable that during back channel talks over Doklam, the Indian side quietly made concessions to Beijing, such as agreeing to join the Belt and Road Initiative.

Finally, another fallout of the Doklam crisis is likely to be strains in India’s relations with Bhutan and possibly Nepal.

There is evidence that the prolonged border crisis has caused some in both countries to consider a more balanced relationship with India and China. In the coming days, this blog will examine Bhutan and Nepal’s options for dealing with the jostling behemoths that envelope them.

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