Commentary / World

India and China provide rare glimmer of hope

Confrontation in the Himalayas could have turned violent, but mature diplomacy won the day

On Monday, China and India announced an amicable resolution to their dispute at their shared border area with Bhutan that began on June 16.

When countries find themselves locked in a dispute, they face a choice between conflict perpetuation and conflict resolution. Too often, they choose to prolong and deepen the conflict by insisting that “we” are totally in the right and “they” are completely in the wrong. The dispute involves a matter of basic principle — sovereignty is always a favorite — over which there can be no negotiation.

“Compromise” and “accommodation” become the diplomatic equivalent of four-letter words. Once both sides lock themselves in, resolution becomes much more difficult without serious loss of face and so the dispute becomes frozen — unless of course it escalates into outright war, in which case the battlefield can resolve the dispute at least temporarily. This is not a bad, if somewhat abstract, explanation for the frozen Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan.

The alternative route to swift and relatively painless resolution takes the opposite tack in all these respects. There is an acceptance that right and wrong can exist on both sides, mutual accommodation resulting from negotiation may be required, and apples may have to be traded for oranges in the interests of getting to a solution that all sides can accept and sell to their respective domestic constituencies.

There were several unusual features of the China and India confrontation on the Doklam plateau. The territory concerned is not in dispute between China and India. Rather, it is between Bhutan and China in relation to Tibet. For this purpose tiny Bhutan is effectively an Indian protectorate.

Several rounds of discussions between Bhutan and China had failed to achieve a resolution. Meanwhile China and India had reached understandings that pending a resolution of the dispute, the status quo would not be altered. When China was discovered to be converting a dirt track into a paved road, this was interpreted as an attempt to alter the status quo. Bhutan called on India’s help and Indian soldiers moved in to physically dismantle the construction.

Subsequently China in effect took the conflict perpetuation approach while India settled on the conflict resolution approach. In part this reflected the fact that for China the dispute involved a matter of national sovereignty and it felt India was an interloper in a bilateral dispute with Bhutan. Given the power asymmetries, Bhutan on its own could be quickly intimidated into submission.

China immediately ramped up the decibel level, let loose a furious and sustained barrage of demands and insults at India, and whipped up a nationalistic frenzy at home. It refused to budge and suggested a simultaneous pullback from the confrontation.

As the conflict dragged on, Beijing gradually realized that it was going to need a face-saving resolution to the standoff. The difficulty of hastily clambering up the moral high horse is the risk that the climb-down can prove an awkward and undignified spectacle.

India held its tongue, nerve and ground on a dispute with security implications for access to its northeastern states through a narrow corridor, plus its reliability as a security guarantor for a small neighbor. This was one of the most measured and mature demonstrations of professional diplomacy coming out of New Delhi in a very long time and it has paid dividends. India never responded to China’s verbal provocations in kind. Officials were reported to have reached out to commentators, given them briefings and urged them to exercise restraint in their commentary in order not to inflame the situation, which India felt was under control.

On the border itself there were some scuffles, shoving and fisticuffs a couple of times, but as far as we know not a shot was fired by either side. Nevertheless, learning from the history of many previous incidents, minor and serious, India beefed up its military preparedness at various points along the 3,500-km disputed border with China, just in case. And the Indian troops made open preparations for the long haul through the forthcoming winter months, again demonstrating public resolve to stay the course as long as necessary.

Once China realized India was determined to stand its ground, back-channel efforts began to find an acceptable formula to revert to the status quo. The forthcoming BRICS summit in Xiamen from Sunday to Tuesday helped to concentrate minds, as neither side wanted the public spectacle of the grouping’s second most important leader not coming. India again showed maturity in refusing to respond to the public speculation of a possible boycott by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The announcement of the agreement was made simultaneously in the two capitals.

The nuance and emphasis in their respective wordings were telling. China highlighted that Indian troops had pulled back and Beijing had successfully asserted its right to continue patrolling its sovereignty. China’s media reported the withdrawal of Indian troops but ignored the requirement for mutual pullbacks. Some foreign journalists too, including the China correspondent of The Australian, took China’s press release at face value to report the agreement as Indian capitulation. A moment’s reflection, or else a phone call to the Indian Embassy, would have given hint of the nuances hidden in the simultaneous announcements in Beijing and New Delhi.

The Indian statement referred to mutual disengagement and sequential withdrawals of troops. In other words, both sides agreed that Indian troops pulling back first would provide sufficient face to China, which had insisted on an unconditional Indian retreat. India agreed to this as a “goodwill gesture.” As an old story has it, two sworn enemies confront each other on a narrow pathway. “I don’t give way to fools,” growls the big tough guy. “I do,” says the little man, who steps aside and lives to tell the tale.

China did quietly concede to making “adjustments on the ground.” In a second statement at the end of the day, India confirmed that both sides had moved out “under verification,” “expeditious disengagement of border personnel at the faceoff site … was ongoing,” and Chinese troops and their road-building equipment had been withdrawn. Beijing said it had stopped the road-building “for now” due to adverse “weather and other factors.”

In another act of maturity, the Modi government briefed leaders of the major opposition parties who in turn paused the hyper-partisan domestic politicking to support the deal — in itself an important clue to the symmetric retreats by China and India as one-sided capitulation would be pounced on by the opposition to lash the Modi government.

Ramesh Thakur is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.