More than two months after Indian troops crossed over into what New Delhi considers Bhutanese territory to prevent construction of a road by Chinese soldiers, the Doklam standoff is over. India’s Ministry of External Affairs said on Monday that “expeditious disengagement of border personnel” has been agreed to at the face-off site, and is ongoing. Beijing’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson said that India has pulled back all of its “personnel and equipment to the Indian side of the boundary.” In other words, the dispute, which at times over the past few months threatened to spark off a bigger conflict, has now been resolved peacefully.

India and China issued statements announcing the end of the standoff on Monday, although both are vague enough that it is yet unclear whether either side had to make a concession for the situation to be resolved. So far, all that is clear is that the standoff is over. It will be some time before we know what took place and what that means on the ground.

How it started

The situation began after Indian troops crossed over into the Doklam plateau, a portion of territory near the tri-junction border that is claimed by both Bhutan and China. New Delhi claimed that Chinese troops were building a road into Bhutanese territory. Citing its treaties with Thimpu, India said it had to intervene to prevent a change to the status-quo while China and Bhutan are still negotiating their borders. And so Indian troops made their way over, with tractors, to prevent the Chinese from building the road any further.

The Chinese, however, were incensed. India and China regularly have small skirmishes, though there has not been a bullet fired between the two countries in decades. But this situation was different, because Indian troops crossed over into territory claimed by two countries – neither of which is India. Beijing’s policy of pushing its smaller neighbours into delivering concessions was suddenly halted because of India’s actions, though China claimed that Indians had trespassed into its territory. Its foreign ministry and state media spent the last two months threatening everything, including war, if India did not relent.

As such, India demanded a mutual withdrawal from the region for troops of both countries, while China’s position was that the Indian troops would have to return to their side of the border before talks could proceed.

Indian and Chinese statements

Here is what is known about the resolution to the standoff:

Statement by Indian Ministry of External Affairs:

  • “In recent weeks, India and China have maintained diplomatic communication in respect of the incident at Doklam. During these communications, we were able to express our views and convey our concerns and interests.
  • On this basis, expeditious disengagement of border personnel at the face-off site at Doklam has been agreed to and is on-going.”

The second bullet point is the only bit of new information.

All it says is that “expeditious disengagement of border personnel” at Doklam has been agreed to and is happening. It does not say of whose border personnel – India, China or both? It does not include the word “mutual” and it does not elaborate on what “expeditious disengagement” means, although most are taking that to refer to withdrawal.

This is what the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said, according to state-run Global Times.

“On the afternoon of August 28, the Indian side has pulled back all the trespassing personnel and equipment to the Indian side of the boundary and the Chinese personnel on the ground has verified this. China will continue to exercise its sovereignty and uphold its territorial integrity in accordance with historical conventions.”    

This is a little clearer. If one were to believe China’s statement, it suggests that the “expeditious disengagement” India mention basically means Indian troops withdrawing from Doklam. It also includes a Chinese assertion of rights to the territory.

What about the road?

Neither of the statements makes any reference to the Chinese road-building, which was the issue at hand. Indeed, one can attempt to interpret both statements as references to the road-building. The agreed-upon “disengagement” mentioned in the Indian statement could cover China’s road building. And the assertion of China continuing to “exercise its sovereignty” could also be read as Beijing’s way of saying it can build if it wishes. Right now there is ambiguity from both sides. Until either one clarifies, or reports from the ground suggests actual action, it will remain unclear.

Conventional wisdom, considering no actual conflict and an end to the standoff, would suggest that both sides have agreed to return to the status quo. This means Indian troops return to Indian territory, while China stops building its road. Many believe China needed to resolve the situation before the BRICS summit that is coming up and so has agreed to a face-saver, where it can claim that “trespassing” Indian troops have returned to their territory. This reading suggests India will stay mum about the road, allowing China its face-saver, while having sent a message to Beijing and other neighbours about its willingness to stand firm despite provocation.

But for that to hold, India and China will either have to remain mum when asked questions about the road-building – or have a pat answer that maintains the ambiguity of the current statements. Considering China’s use of its foreign ministry and state media to make points, and the fact that India’s external affairs ministry has a weekly press conference, it is likely that the answer to that question will not have to wait for too long.