China and the World

Blurred lines

Both sides claim vindication after border truce


Due in China on Sunday: Modi

For 73 days Indian and Chinese troops stared at each other across a scrubby patch of land high in the Himalayas. Occasionally they exchanged insults and threw stones. Mercifully, the stand-off never escalated into full-scale hostilities. And on Monday the two nuclear powers announced the confrontation in Doklam (known as Donglang in Chinese) was over.

Indian troops were withdrawing to their side of the border and the number of Chinese soldiers was also being reduced.

At first it looked like victory for Beijing, which claims the disputed land is part of Tibet. However, in a world where few dare to challenge the Chinese – especially over territorial claims – it is perhaps the Indians who have come out on top.

That was certainly the view of the Indian media. “India stands vindicated,” crowed the Delhi-based Financial Express. “India’s geopolitical status goes up after Doklam stand-off ends,” the Times of India echoed.

To recap: the trouble began in mid-June when Chinese soldiers began extending a road across an area known as the tri-junction – a slither of the Himalayas where the Indian state of Sikkim meets Tibet and Bhutan.

The delineation of the Indian border there is generally agreed upon. But China and Bhutan disagree on who owns Doklam (or Donglang).

Further complicating the matter was that a new Chinese road would have provided access to a high point within firing range of India’s Siliguri Corridor. Known by Indians as ‘the chicken’s neck’, this strip of land connects the main mass of India with its seven northeastern states and is seen as highly strategic.

India sent troops and bulldozers into the disputed area to stop construction of the road on the basis that it is Bhutan’s closest ally and historic protector. Yet Bhutan – which maintained a steady silence throughout – never confirmed that it had asked for Delhi’s help.

So how has the dispute come to an end? In typical fashion, the Indian media has produced reams of reports on events on the frontline and feted the central characters. The Chinese media is giving little away. But the consensus is that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to hold negotiations at ministerial level in early July, when they met at the G20 meeting in Hamburg. National Security Advisor Ajit Doval represented Delhi and Beijing chose former foreign minister and state councillor Yang Jiechi. The two held talks in Beijing in late July.

The sticking point for China was that Indian troops had crossed into territory for which they had no claim. It demanded unilateral withdrawal. For India the central issue was the road and China’s attempt to change the status quo in the area. In the end, it appears India got what it wanted: a cessation to the roadbuilding.

“China will continue fulfilling its sovereign rights to safeguard territorial sovereignty in compliance with the stipulations of the border-related historical treaty,” its foreign ministry said on Monday when it announced the disengagement.

However, details of what was happening to the road were unclear. The following day, officials said that “weather” was a factor and that it would make further construction plans “in light of the actual situation”. Speaking to the Washington Post, Mao Siwei, a former Chinese consul general in the Indian city of Kolkata, said the statements were deliberately “vague”, and added “Judging from experience and common sense, I guess both sides have come to the following agreement: firstly, on principle, China would stop its roadbuilding and India would withdraw its troops; secondly, regarding the timing, India would withdraw first and China would withdraw later.”

The South China Morning Post predicts the two-month row will “cast a long shadow” over Sino-Indian relations, although Modi will attend the BRICS summit in Xiamen, which starts on Sunday. It also quoted retired PLA general Wang Yue as saying that China seemed to have made “substantial concessions in order to end the dispute”, while the Global Times hinted that hawks weren’t happy with the outcome too. “A few Chinese perhaps are not satisfied that the crisis was settled this way. They wish the People’s Liberation Army could have given India’s troops a good slap,” it said.

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