On August 28th, both India and China have confirmed that the standoff in Doklam area has been resolved. This is a great achievement, considering that the Chinese side was full of high rhetoric and surprisingly, Indian side was silent. It’s a relief for 2.5 billion people living in these two countries that better sense prevailed and not a single bullet fired.
India moved to Doklam, an area claimed by Bhutan, with whom India has a mutual assistance treaty and stopped Chinese road building. The road building would have altered status quo and would have made it a de facto Chinese territory.
What is not clearly understandable is why China would agree to disengagement. Various op-eds have been written in the past 24 hours and many have claimed a victory for India and have claimed this as a template to other countries to counter China. In a military conflict, victory cannot be understood nor defined. History has shown us that much.
Some reasons offered:
- Both sides didn’t want war –But we were not close to war. It was a standoff with some scuffle. This may seem logical at a higher principle level but at a rational level, doesn’t hold good. Even a continued standoff, as it was for the past couple of months, may not have resulted in war.
- China didn’t have Plan B after India put its foot down and prepared for longer standoff – ok. So? If India can tent with many soldiers there, with no intention to start a fight, China can also do the same. Conversely, when India moved in, did we have a Plan B (other than war)? I doubt, but we may never know.
- Bhutan didn’t budge – another theory is that China expected Bhutan to open up to it with this muscle flexing but Bhutan didn’t. Curiously, in 2014, when NDA government came to power, that India’s earlier commitment of 10000MW by 2020 will not be possible. Bhutan’s economic security lies in this. This is not resolved. So, this theory of Bhutan didn’t budge is partially true and holds good for now but not forever.
What has China gained? From the look of it, nothing. So, why would a long thinking power retreat with no gain to demonstrate? All it had to do was to ask its soldiers to tent and supply food. The Himalayan winter is not uniquely inhospitable to China alone in Doklam. If India can stay in Siachen, China can certainly stay, sitting opposite to India in Doklam. So, it brings us back to the same question. What did it gain?
It requires more clarity for following reasons.
- By withdrawing, has it pushed Bhutan more towards India? If so, why will it do that in the first place?
- By withdrawing, it may have temporarily closed its ambitions of Bhutan joining OBOR and increased Bhutan’s resolved in future, knowing fully well that India will back it. So, why withdraw?
- It has given hope to territorial disputes it has with other countries. Which power will wantonly do this? If so, why?
- Open other fronts. With ease, China can open multiple fronts along the disputed border from Ladakh (which it did briefly on Independence day), to Arunachal Pradesh to Himachal Pradesh, thereby forcing India to make a choice on where it has to concentrate its forces. It didn’t.
- Xi Jinping’s personal reputation at stake. From taking extreme stand like – ‘India should pull back before talks’ to mutual disengagement, it certainly is seen as a loss of face to Xi. Why would anyone who wants to cement his power in China will accept to this? Again, all he had to do was to order troops to just tent and wait it out.
- Coming Party Congress in China. Crucially, with all his fight against ‘corruption’ and other purge of high profile officers, party functionaries, naturally, Xi has few ‘silent’ opponents. Why will anyone order a disengagement when this will allow some more ‘silent’ opponents to question his ability to manage ‘stability’?
If all I have to do is to just sit and stare at the enemy and not use my gun and knowing that India will not fire the first bullet, all this disengagement doesn’t sound convincing nor logical.
So here are my calculated speculations:
- Bhutan may open more to China, maybe in next one year.
- While India – US – Japan partnership is developing, we may see cementing of China – Russia – Pakistan partnership. Depending on which country (US or Russia) India approached to seek some intervention, this is more on the speculative arena.
- India may not push US on our NSG claim.
- India may go soft on our trade deficit with China
- Or, a more likely reasoning – that it requires all its resources to focus on North Korea rather than staring down India.
Contrary to any learned opinion, I refuse to agree that China didn’t have anything to gain from the disengagement. People’s Republic of China of 21st century will not disengage without a strategic gain.