Why the standoff between India and China, near the Sikkim border, began at all, and how it ended, after 71 long and anxious days, on August 28, will likely never be fully known. The Indian foreign ministry maintains cryptically that “following diplomatic communications, expeditious disengagement of border personnel of India and China at the face-off site at Doklam,” took place last week.

New Delhi falls far short of making any claims about an agreement or understanding with Beijing regarding mutual withdrawal – leave alone about China stopping its road-building activities, which led to the standoff in the first instance.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry has been more forthcoming. It put on record that:As a result of diplomatic representations and “effective countermeasures” at the military level, the Indian side “withdrew” all its personnel and equipment.

• As a result of diplomatic representations and “effective countermeasures” at the military level, the Indian side “withdrew” all its personnel and equipment.

• The Chinese personnel “onsite have verified” the fact of Indian withdrawal.

• The Chinese troops “continue with their patrolling and stationing” in the Doklam area.

• China will “adjust and deploy its military resources” in the area to meet the needs of guarding the border.

• China has long been undertaking road-building in the area and will in future “make proper building plans in light of the actual situation,” taking into account weather conditions.

New Delhi hasn’t disagreed with China’s contentions. Instead, a series of unattributed, self-serving media leaks have appeared, portraying Indian officials as strong-willed men who stared the Chinese down. This is rather tragi-comic, given the geopolitical reality that the standoff is sure to be a watershed event in India-China relations and regional politics. The Chinese Defense Ministry warned New Delhi to learn its “lesson” from the standoff.

On balance, it appears that India won’t admit its unilateral withdrawal from Doklam, while the Chinese side is disinterested in triumphalism.

Clearly, with the brief summer season about to end in the region’s tangled mountains, India has managed to stall any road-building activity by China during this calendar year.

But the nagging question remains: What prompted India to unilaterally withdraw? To quote a prominent China expert in New Delhi, “In the face of mounting Chinese psychological pressure on asymmetries, combined with coercive diplomacy and deployment of lethal equipment, the Indian announcement of ‘disengagement’ at Doklam comes as no surprise.”

There had been reports – backed by video and photographic evidence –of China moving trainloads of advanced HQ-16 and HQ-17 missiles and other military equipment to Tibet. China was reinforcing its layered air defense systems to counter Indian air power, hinting at serious preparations for a military offensive.

Equally, two other critical factors would have influenced Indian thinking. One, India’s economic growth slowed to around 5.7% between April and June, the slowest quarterly rate in the three years of the present government. A war with China would cripple the economy. Secondly, no country voiced support for India, let alone criticized China. The North Korean issue preoccupied both Washington and Tokyo.

The India-China standoff on the Doklam Plateau could have regional ramifications. Photo: AFP
Chinese and Indian patrols at the Doklam Plateau. Photo: AFP

In retrospect, China showed that on issues of territorial sovereignty, there is no question of a compromise. But something may also have changed fundamentally in its attitude toward India. Harsh things have been said, betraying displeasure and anger, and a breakdown in trust and confidence.

A bumpy road lies ahead. Simply put, India is unable to come to terms with China’s rise, and the latter senses that it must now be on guard. Conceivably, Chinese diplomacy in the South Asian region may shift to adversarial mode. With tacit Chinese support, countries such as Nepal, Sri Lanka or the Maldives may be in a better position to withstand India’s overbearing presence.

India’s future relations with Bhutan, the friend on whose behalf it stuck out its neck but which kept a Delphian silence, are almost certain to become more delicate. Prof. Taylor Fravel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who is regarded as an authority on China’s borders, wrote last week that China might well revisit its road-building plans in the disputed territory with Bhutan. To quote Fravel,

“Before the standoff in June, China’s permanent presence in the area had been quite limited. China had maintained a road in the area for several decades, but did not garrison any forces. In contrast, India has maintained and developed a forward post at Doka La adjacent to Doklam… China may well seek to rectify this tactical imbalance of forces. In fact, the Chinese spokesperson suggested a move in this direction… If China does this, it would likely build facilities farther away from India’s position at Doka La, making it more challenging for India to intervene and block China next time… India may be faced with the uncomfortable choice of deciding whether to risk much more to deny China a greater presence farther inside Doklam or to accept it.” 

The real lesson, therefore, that India should learn from the Doklam standoff is that it shouldn’t draw wrong conclusions. The BRICS Summit in Xiamen is not to be mistaken as a “kiss-and-make-up” moment.

Deep down, India has a choice to make and China is watching closely. Should the Modi government go further down the road of trespassing into China’s core interests in the South China Sea, raking up Tibet-related issues and identifying with the United States’ containment strategy against China?

Such a journey risks military confrontation with China. How far is India prepared to take that risk? The Modi government’s accent could have been on diplomacy in the crucial three-week period after the Chinese notified New Delhi, in late May, of their intention to commence road-building work at Doklam. But instead of activating its diplomatic levers, India resorted to force, confident in the knowledge that in that particular sector of the border it is strongly placed.

The dismal picture that has emerged over the past week is of the Indian officials responsible for that fateful decision counting trees and trying to convince domestic opinion that India “won” and China “lost”. The great danger is that their core constituency of ultra-nationalists will – to take the sports analogy further – now expect them to raise the bar.

M.K. Bhadrakumar

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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