On August 28 the ministry of external affairs put out a statement: “In recent weeks, India and China have maintained diplomatic communication in respect of the incident at Doklam. During these communications, we were able to express our views and convey our concerns and interests. On this basis, expeditious disengagement of border personnel at the face-off site at Doklam has been agreed to and is on-going”. The first part of the statement articulated that through diplomatic channels India had conveyed its concerns and interests about the face-off in Doklam between China and India. It further stated that on the basis of this diplomatic exchange expeditious disengagement of border personnel had been agreed to and was underway. What the statement did not mention was whether the withdrawal was mutual or unilateral by India? What it also did not disclose was whether China had given any explicit or even implicit assurances that they would not construct a road in Doklam — the trigger of the original flashpoint on June 18. Now let us turn to what did China has to say on the issue. Responding to a question on the same day as the Indian statement, the spokesperson of China’s foreign ministry stated in response to a query.
The question asked was “We have learned that on the afternoon of August 28, the Indian border troops and equipment that illegally crossed the Sikkim sector of the China-India border have all been withdrawn to the Indian side, marking an end to the trespassing incident. Do you have more information?” The answer was “On June 18, the Indian border troops illegally crossed the well-delimited China-India border in the Sikkim Sector into China’s Dong Lang area. China has lodged representations with the Indian side many times through diplomatic channels, made the facts and truth of this situation known to the international community, clarified China’s solemn position and explicit demands, and urged India to immediately pull back its border troops to the India’s side. In the meantime, the Chinese military has taken effective counter-measures to ensure the territorial sovereignty and legitimate rights and interests of the state. At about 2.30 pm of August 28, the Indian side withdrew all its border personnel and equipment that were illegally on the Chinese territory to the Indian side. The Chinese personnel onsite have verified this situation. China will continue fulfilling its sovereign rights to safeguard territorial sovereignty in compliance with the stipulations of the border-related historical treaty”.
Another question asked was “The Indian government’s announcement is that there is a ‘mutual disengagement’ of the troops between the two countries. You haven’t mentioned the pullback of the Chinese troops. You mentioned only the pullback of the Indian troops. How do you explain?” The spokesperson replied saying, “The Chinese side has made it clear that the Indian border personnel and equipment that trespassed into China’s territory have all been withdrawn to the Indian side of the border. The Chinese border troops continue with their patrols and stationing in the Dong Lang area. China will continue with its exercise of sovereign rights to protect territorial sovereignty in accordance with the stipulations of the border-related historical treaty”.
In response to a further probe the spokesperson reiterated, “I want to stress that the Indian side withdrew all its border personnel and equipment that were illegally on the Chinese territory to the Indian side. The Chinese personnel onsite have verified this situation. The Chinese border troops continue with their patrols and stationing in the Dong Lang area. China will continue fulfilling its sovereign rights to safeguard territorial sovereignty in compliance with the stipulations of the border-related historical treaty. In the meantime, in light of the changing landscape on the ground, China will make necessary adjustments and deployment as it sees fit”. Next day, the Chinese spokesperson again responded to a journalistic inquiry about whether China has stopped building roads in the Dong Lang area. He said that China has said clearly that China has long been carrying out infrastructure building, including roads, in the Dong Lang area to meet the needs of guarding the border and to improve the living and working conditions of the troops stationed there and people living there. “Taking into account various factors like the weather, we will make proper building plans in light of the actual situation”, he added. The Indian side has not controverted any of the official Chinese statements so far. What has emerged is that China disavowed that the disengagement was mutual. It also mentions that Chinese border troops continue with their patrols and stationing in the Donglang area. Note the word stationing.
In layman’s English it means staying put. It also is ambiguous, to put it rather mildly, about its road-building plans in the Doklam area. It may just be appropriate to point out that what China’s call Dong Lang, Bhutan refers to it as Doklam and we as Doka-la. A Sino-Indian confrontation is not in the interest of either country and certainly not the larger Indo-Pacific region. It may have been wise to ignore the high decibel rhetoric emanating from the Chinese side over the past over two months. For clearly the sudden Chinese activity in the Doklam region was connected to the boycott of the “One Belt One Road” conference by India. Bhutan was the only country out of the region that stood by India and did not attend the conference. However, while government sources have briefed the media off the record that the reason that they have chosen to ignore the latest assertions of the Chinese foreign office is to give China a “face saver”. Is this a face-saver or an abject surrender?
If indeed we were prepared to swallow our pride, get egg on our face, allow China to grandstand on the global stage and the Prime Minister is still going to Xiamin in China for the Brics summit, then the question arises if China was in the wrong and we were in the right why are we walking the extra nine yards to let China of the hook? That too at a time when it was in China’s interest to lower tensions in Doklam as they were facing an almost two-front situation with heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula. Will China interpret India’s magnanimity as a gesture of good faith, sign of weakness or conclude that the bombastic rhetoric of muscular nationalism spouted over the past three years was the handiwork of people who turned out to have feet of clay when the push came to a shove? The jury is out on that.