After a 74-day staring contest between the armies of the two most populous countries in the world, India and China announced on Monday that their standoff on the disputed Doklam plateau had been resolved. Both Indian and Chinese troops withdrew from the site of the standoff, giving both governments an opportunity to reiterate their belief in peaceful dialogue as the ideal solution for disputes. As a few more details begin to trickle in, analysts in India are starting to be cautiously laudatory about New Delhi’s firm resolve in the face of Chinese provocation over the last two months, with many claiming an Indian victory.
“Big win for India that will enhance its status with South Asian neighbours,” was the intro to a story written by defence analyst Ajai Shukla. One of the “toughest foreign policy challenges for India in recent times,” wrote journalist Indrani Bagchi, adding that New Delhi “won”. “India’s greatest diplomatic victory in decades,” claimed analyst Abhijit Iyer Mitra.
The jubilant responses are an attempt to recognise what India has managed to achieve by standing up to Chinese provocation, even if the final deal involved Indian troops withdrawing from the disputed area. Indian troops crossed over into the Doklam Plateau in June, claiming that China – by trying to build a road – was attempting to change the status quo in a region that is claimed by both China and Bhutan.
Repeated provocations from Chinese officials, as well as messages from China’s state-run media that went from mocking videos to threatening all-out war, were still not enough to make India blink. “China had attempted to threaten and cajole India through public messages, mocking videos, and travel advisories intended to limit Chinese tourists from traveling to India,” wrote Dhruva Jaishankar, fellow, Foreign Policy with Brookings India. “None of that worked.”
In the end, according to much of the available analysis, India offered to let China save face by withdrawing its troops first, in return for a yet-undeclared Chinese promise that it would not build the road in territory claimed by both China and Bhutan. This permitted both India and China to withdraw their troops from the area, even as China asserted its right to patrol around there, and paved the way for friendlier relations when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi travels to China in the first week of September for a BRICS conference.
“China’s bigger objective to make the BRICS Summit in Xiamen in the first week of September a grand success provided to be the best diplomatic window to seal an understanding,” wrote Pranab Dhal Samanta in the Print.
Indian stands firm
The withdrawal of Indian troops and resolution of the crisis is not the reason for the generally positive Indian analysis in the aftermath of the Doklam standoff. Instead, it is the fact that New Delhi stood up to Chinese provocation – especially as it threatened the stance of a neigbhouring country – and yet avoided any bloodshed, that is driving the triumphant commentary.
“While China expected India to withdraw forthwith due to a perception of the latter’s supposed weak military disposition, it did not have a ‘Plan B’ ready that would cater for the eventuality of India deciding to stick it out,” wrote former Lieutenant General Syed Ata Hasnain. “As the standoff progressed into a long stalemate, the advantage appeared to shift to India creating a situation, where a mutual disengagement through diplomatic negotiation would end to India’s moral advantage.”
Hasnain, like a few others, argues that India has played the situation very well, proving that New Delhi is able to send a stern message. But he also cautioned against any effort to label the resolution a victory, warning that China will certainly be looking to respond. Mihir Sharma also cautioned against declaring a triumphant win for India.
“What matters is that two large, nuclear-armed countries – nations with outsized ambitions, hyper-nationalist lobbies and leaders who pride themselves on “strength” – somehow managed to find a via media that allowed them to wiggle out of a difficult position,” Sharma wrote.
Nevertheless, there is a general belief that India’s ability to look Beijing in the eyes and stay firm also sends a message to other countries on China’s borders, while providing a template with which to take on the Chinese.
What comes next?
Not everyone is convinced, however. Prem Shankar Jha wrote that, while it is unclear if any side can declare victory, “what cannot be denied is that the Chinese have seen the full extent of India’s paranoia about the vulnerability of the Chicken’s Neck stretch of territory between Bangladesh and Sikkim and will not hesitate to use it in future to put pressure upon New Delhi when the need arise.”
And Praveen Swami points out that though Bhutan is happy that the situation has been resolved, its leaders will nevertheless be concerned about yet again being stuck in between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.
Finally, even those happy to claim India has won a victory here also add cautionary notes about what China might do next, and what New Delhi must undertake to ensure that situations like this continue to work to Indian advantage. “What is even more important is not to be led away to believe that only quiet diplomacy succeeds,” Hasnain wrote. “ This time China did not use its force multipliers such as cyber warfare but possibly tested some models in the live environment. The next time this will be a crucial domain.”