News analysis

Face-saving deal not the end of China-India tussle

Although Beijing seemed to have blinked, it also served notice of firm intent in area

BEIJING • For weeks, China's Foreign Ministry had been vehement in its denunciations of India and insistence that New Delhi unconditionally withdraw troops that had trespassed into Chinese territory.

Don't underestimate us, China repeatedly insisted, we are prepared for military conflict if need be. Yet on Monday, it appeared as though it was Beijing, not New Delhi, that blinked.

Both sides withdrew troops to end the stand-off on the Doklam plateau, known as Donglang in China. Crucially, military sources told Indian newspapers that China has also withdrawn the bulldozers used in constructing a road on the plateau.

That road, being built on land contested by Bhutan and China, was the reason India's troops had entered the disputed area in the first place, in defence of its ally Bhutan.

The eventual deal allowed both sides to save face - India's Ministry of External Affairs suggested in its statement that it had stuck to its "principled position" in the discussions, which was that road-building violated ongoing terms of a boundary dispute between Bhutan and China.

Yet some experts said it was premature to start declaring victory, and China continued to be cagey in its official remarks.

China insisted its troops would continue to patrol and garrison the disputed area, as well as continue to exercise its sovereign rights there, with its Foreign Ministry spokesman saying on Tuesday the country would make plans for road construction "in accordance with the situation on the ground".


India withdrawing troops is a fact, did we give up some legitimate rights such as building road, this is what citizens care about, our focus is whether India's withdrawal is unconditional, hope there is a clear explanation.


Then, on Wednesday, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi appeared to chide India, saying: "We of course hope that India could learn some lessons from this, and (hope) events similar to this one would not happen again."

And in comments yesterday, the Defence Ministry said it would beef up patrols along the disputed stretch but would also "adjust" deployments. "The Chinese military will continue to carry out its mission and responsibilities, strengthen its patrols and garrisons in the Donglang area and resolutely safeguard national sovereignty and security," Defence Ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang said.

"In light of the changes in the situation on the ground, Chinese border forces will carry out adjustments to deployments," Colonel Ren said, without elaborating.

Two factors may have helped talk China down and away from conflict - Indian media said Bhutan had been resolute in talks with Beijing that it considered the Chinese road to be an infringement of a 2012 deal between the two countries that neither would develop infrastructure in disputed areas.

The second was a summit of Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) nations due to be hosted by China this weekend.

Beijing sets great store by set-piece summits of this nature, and the embarrassing possibility that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi might not attend may have focused minds in Beijing.

In India, news outlets painted Monday's stand-down as a win for Indian diplomacy and in China, the state media has also tried to paint the resolution as a victory for Asia and diplomacy.

On social media, though, some Internet users have asked uncomfortable questions.

"India withdrawing troops is a fact, did we give up some legitimate rights such as building road, this is what citizens care about, our focus is whether India's withdrawal is unconditional, hope there is a clear explanation," said one user on China's social media platform Weibo after the stand-off ended.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 01, 2017, with the headline 'Face-saving deal not the end of China-India tussle'. Print Edition | Subscribe