It was, on the face of it, a surprise when, on 28 August, both China and India publicly announced that an agreement had been reached between t he two countries, under the terms of which the latter was withdrawing its forces thereby ending a potentially dangerous eight week stand-off in Dokalam (aka Doklam and, in Mandarin, Donglang). As I reported on 11 August, up to t his point it had not been at all clear how and when the tensions would be defused; indeed, the expectation had been that the situation could drag on for weeks, at the risk of deteriorating further.
Although China seemed initially to be claiming ‘victory’ (at least in the press), it has since toned down its rhetoric somewhat; and, as has subsequently become apparent, both sides have withdrawn “personnel and equipment” in what Indian officials have described as “expeditious disengagement” in what Indian officials - certainly more diplomatically and possibly more accurately - have described as a "draw".
A timely step back
I surely agree that the step back was "expeditious", not least as regards timeliness in that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is due to arrive in China this coming weekend for the BRICS summit in Xiamen on 3- 5 September. No leader wants a summit to be marred by bilateral tensions, especially the host. Chinese President Xi Jinping will be no exception given his prime focus on ensuring a smooth passage to, and (from his perspective) successful outcomes from, the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) due to be held in October (or, possibly, November). Hosting a successful BRICS summit is part and parcel of burnishing his credentials as China’s “core leader”.
This, in turn, begs the question as to what concessions China may have made to reach an agreement with India which has allowed both parties to step back. Unfortunately, the details of whatever has been agreed are still not generally known. But we can reasonably surmise that they may well include China’s pulling back from its proposed road construction, the prevention of which was the driver behind India’s intervention. I agree entirely with commentators who have drawn a parallel between the proposed Dokalam road and China’s island building in the South China Sea, ie that the latter is another example of China looking to establish ‘facts on the ground’ in support of historic but controversial territorial claims. Certainly, India will not be alone in continuing to monitor the situation there very closely.
What is also not clear is the extent to which Bhutan — on whose territory the confrontation was actually taking place — was actively engaged in the behind-the-scenes diplomacy which India has credited for a deal being struck. But what is known is that the Bhutanese authorities welcomed the end of the stand-off; and that they have called on China to abide by bilateral accords struck in 1988 and 1998 to the effect that both Beijing and Thimphu would respect the boundary between them as of 1959 until such time as there is a comprehensive agreement on disputed borders.
Is a "draw" in fact a win-win?
Thus, Xi Jinping is in a position to present this week’s deal as China respecting existing agreements with Bhutan while standing up to Indian “trespassing” and asserting Chinese sovereignty claims.
For Mr Modi promoting a positive ‘spin’ for India may be a little more difficult. But, overall, there is likely to be more of a sense of relief in New Delhi than anything given long memories of the last time China and India were involved in serious conflict over disputed borders back in 1962 and China’s military superiority today. Nevertheless, if China were to press ahead with building its proposed road in Dokalam, it would be very hard indeed for India not to respond again by trying to prevent this from happening given the road’s potential strategic significance.
Bigger fish to fry?
All this being said, it is important to keep in mind that, with no disrespect to Bhutan, the dispute in Dokalam is relatively small beer compared to New Delhi’s concern over increasing Chinese engagement with and in Pakistan. Even before last week’s announcement by President Donald Trump of a "new" US strategy for South Asia, which included a pretty hard line on Pakistan especially considering how close an American ally it has been historically and how dependent the US remains on it for supply lines into Afghanistan, Islamabad had been moving closer to Beijing for some years now. And it is in line to be a major beneficiary from Xi Jinping’s flagship “Belt and Road” project to the tune of investments in infrastructure worth at least USD50bn. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Pakistan has reacted to Mr Trump’s announcement by immediately cancelling three high level bilateral meetings with the US, as a senior foreign ministry official in Islamabad made it clear (to the Financial Times — subscriber access only) that his country “in this hour of need once again, we have China standing firmly with us…”. And it is equally unsurprising that India sees “Belt and Road” as an essential ly geopolitical as well as economic project (in which it is far from alone) and is accordingly concerned about its implications.