reflections

China and India Back Down, For Now

4 MINS READAug 28, 2017 | 22:16 GMT
On Aug. 28, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs released a statement saying that a

A bulldozer makes its way along the Nathu La pass close to the border crossing between India and China. The monthslong standoff on top of the world is finally drawing to a close. On Aug. 28, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs released a statement saying that a "disengagement" of troops has begun on the Doklam Plateau. The drawdown highlights how the costs of war outweighed the benefits of aggression for both sides.

(DIPTENDU DUTTA/AFP/Getty Images)

A monthslong standoff on top of the world is finally drawing to a close. On Aug. 28, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs released a statement saying that a "disengagement" of troops has begun on the Doklam Plateau. Doklam — a disputed territory between China and Bhutan — was the site of the confrontation between Indian and Chinese troops as India intervened there in June to halt a Chinese road construction project. India feared the road would have eased China's ability to bring troops closer to the neighboring state of Sikkim and to India's Siliguri corridor, which links the Indian mainland with its northeastern wing. The drawdown highlights how the costs of war outweighed the benefits of aggression for both sides, for now.

Still, the timing of the drawdown is conspicuous. China will host the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) summit on Sept. 3. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi — who was already a no-show during China's Belt and Road Initiative summit — has not confirmed attendance. This is problematic since China would prefer to use BRICS to showcase its harmonious ties with member nations — something which Modi's absence would almost certainly undercut. So it's possible Modi used the threat of his absence as a bargaining chip to goad China into an agreement in which Indian troops backed off in exchange for China's promise to stop building its road. China confirmed neither, but India's decision to back down suggests the affirmative. 

In any case, Doklam is a small part of a much bigger story. India and China share a 4,057-kilometer (2,521-mile) border known as the Line of Actual Control, and nearly all of it is in dispute. For instance, in the northwest lies Aksai Chin, a territory in Kashmir that India claims but China has administered ever since capturing it from India in 1962, when the two countries fought a short, sharp border war in which China emerged the victor. Then to the northeast is Arunachal Pradesh. China captured much of the area in 1962 but subsequently withdrew. China, however, still claims Arunachal Pradesh as "South Tibet," and Chinese troop incursions along the poorly demarcated border are not uncommon.

For India, these vulnerabilities compelled a shift in strategy. Initially, India had intentionally built few roads in the border region to blunt the movement of Chinese troops during another potential invasion. But in 1997, India instituted the China Study Group to propose the construction of border roads, partially in response to China's own infrastructure activities along the border. Many of these roads are incomplete, and Doklam has only drawn attention to their importance. Prior to the standoff, in fact, Modi had prioritized the construction of these 73 strategic roads.

India's desire to bolster infrastructure along a contested border suggests border confrontations with China will continue. This is part of the natural friction that arises when two large countries share a boundary that unfolds across the indomitable chain of the world's tallest mountains. But how that tension manifests is important to watch. A standoff is one possibility. But so are less drawn out measures such as the recent scuffle that took place near Pangong Lake in Aksai Chin. These will also continue.

The more interesting question is whether India and China can continue preventing their disputes (of which Doklam is only one part) from spilling over into other aspects of their overall relationship. So far, this compartmentalization has broadly held. For instance, the two countries issued a joint proposal calling for the World Trade Organization to banish $160 billion in farm subsidies in the United States, European Union, Canada, Japan and Switzerland. And on June 20 — after the standoff began — China's East Hope Group signed a $300 million deal to set up a solar power manufacturing plant in Gujarat, India. Finally, the navies of both countries will participate in the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium in November.

But will this compartmentalization continue to hold? China's cooperation with Pakistan, in particular, has placed unique stresses on China-India relations. The advent of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, China's refusal to sanction the Pakistan-based militant Masood Azhar and China's refusal to approve India's membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group are all irritants that are compelling India to strengthen its ties with the United States and Japan, and to undermine China by promoting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. It remains to be seen whether contentions can be contained within the security sphere, or if they will work to sabotage the countries' broader relationship. So even as the Doklam standoff winds down, India and China's strategic rivalry will only ramp up.

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