So what has happened in Doklam? Has it been a famous victory for India over China? Or vice versa? Frankly, we don’t know enough yet. Nor is victory-or-defeat the right framework to be using right now. This was diplomacy, not war. What matters is this: cooler heads have prevailed, on both sides.
Before we get to what we still don’t know, let’s take a moment to consider what this means for the conduct of Indian foreign policy. Whatever the lineaments of the deal between India and China that we eventually discern, this is, in my opinion, a win for “traditional” diplomacy over “non-traditional” efforts. In other words, the career bureaucrats at the Ministry of External Affairs deserve a great deal of credit for effectively keeping political considerations aside and ensuring that the Doklam confrontation didn’t escalate. Multiple leaks before the Modi-Xi meeting in Hamburg told us that would make a difference; it didn’t. Multiple leaks before Ajit Doval’s trip to Beijing told us that would be a game-changer; it wasn’t. In the end, it was traditional backroom diplomacy that got the job done.
It is premature – and, indeed, unnecessary – to try and spin this as a “victory” for one side or another. In issues of such strategic importance, no great power does anything unilaterally. It is unlikely there was a “mutual withdrawal”, as some have claimed; India’s statement about “disengagement” was quite clear in its implications. “Withdrawal” and “disengagement” are two different things; nor did the Indian foreign ministry make any claims about “mutual” action. The Chinese foreign ministry, meanwhile, said Indian troops withdrew, and that it would maintain patrolling plus its “exercise of sovereign rights”. There is no contradiction here. It is entirely possible for the Chinese to continue patrolling while Indian troops return to their bunkers having achieved the aim of stopping road-building by the Chinese side in disputed territory.
Note that we simply do not know at this point if this particular aim was in fact achieved. The Indian statement does not mention the road; the Chinese statement coyly hints at its “sovereign rights”, a formulation it has used to defend its “legal and legitimate” road-building in the past. Thus, anyone declaring “victory” does not know what they’re talking about. For one, we will need to wait and see if the Chinese have in fact given up their road project. My Observer Research Foundation colleague Abhijnan Rej, who studies strategic standoffs from a game-theoretic perspective, has argued we need to find an empirically testable outcome that reveals what may have been agreed behind closed doors, and suggests that we should keep an eye on whether Chinese earth-moving and road-building equipment is still there a week from now.
“Victory” is easily declared by propagandists on either side, but diplomats will say that things are rarely that simple. Few great powers capitulate unilaterally. Even if the Chinese do get to build this road, it does not mean that we in India have necessarily “lost”. We – the citizens – simply do not know if India has quietly been given other concessions to make up for the consequent loss of face. On the other hand, if China does not build the road, we still do not know what else India may have conceded – something OBOR-related? – in order to sweeten the deal. These will hopefully emerge over time, so let’s keep our eyes, ears and minds open. What should matter to us is that some sort of deal has clearly been worked out, and that the immediate danger has been removed. Neither side will officially claim they have achieved their aims; both sides will unofficially claim they have done so; we, as citizens, are under no obligation to believe any claims until we see what happens on the ground. When it comes to such statements, use the old Ronald Reagan formula: “Trust, but verify”.
That said, there are some major lessons we should learn from this. The first: we do not always know what will set the Chinese off. The reaction from Beijing’s pet media has been unusually vitriolic on this occasion, which has considerably complicated resolution of the situation. Has the Chinese media been told to be more aggressive on India? Was India a target of opportunity or of design? We need deeper thinking about these questions than is currently on offer.
Second, is the Chinese claim that they had let us know in advance about the road-building true? If so, what was the official Indian reaction at that point? Or did that information fail to reach the eyes that would have understood its significance? The best-managed crisis is one that never occurs in the first place. Was an opportunity to avoid this crisis missed, and if so, what structures should be put in place to ensure that such opportunities are not missed in future?
Finally, we have to be more careful about Bhutan. On the one hand, India has demonstrated its willingness to step up and guarantee our joint security. This is good, and also serves as a positive signal to other small countries threatened by Chinese power. On the other hand, given that this particular land is in dispute between China and Bhutan, we should ask ourselves if our messaging about the mountain kingdom’s stakes has been on-point at all times. It would be very troubling if careless messaging that fails to take into account Bhutanese national pride damages our strongest bilateral relationship even slightly. The Chinese are waiting to offer vast sums of money to Thimphu. We need to ensure that nothing they offer looks attractive.
Any success for diplomacy when two armies are locked in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation is to be welcomed. Let’s not be immature about it, by jumping up and down and declaring “we won, we won”. I don’t see the Prime Minister or the Foreign Minister or the Foreign Secretary doing that. The rest of us could do worse than to model our reaction on theirs.
This commentary originally appeared in NDTV.