China And India's Border Dispute Cools, But Both Sides Ready For Any New Standoff
China and India, never great friends, suddenly ended a military standoff this week on a plateau in the Himalayan mountain kingdom of Bhutan. For 70 days Chinese troops defending a highway project on the Doklam Plateau faced Indian counterparts called by Bhutan for help. China claims the plateau, which lies on its own border, hence its rush to defend the roadwork. The standoff between Asia’s two biggest and among the two most militarily powerful countries had scared a lot of people to fear a hot war like one the same two sides fought in 1962.
The two would-be combatants are likely to bring their forces back someday for failure to resolve underlying issues such as whether China has rights to build. “The standoff has ended without resolving the dispute over the Doklam plateau,” says Brahma Chellaney, strategic studies professor at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.
China is seeking the glow as a good neighbor now as it prepares to host Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi next week at the BRICS Summit, an 11-year-old event aimed at building cooperation across emerging markets. Before year’s end, Chinese President Xi Jinping faces a performance review of sorts at his country’s 19th National Congress of the Communist Party. He wouldn’t want to be burdened then with a knotty foreign affairs problem as the Congress considers him for another five-year term as party head.
In those contexts, the agreement Monday for an “expeditious disengagement” of troops on the plateau rings perfectly logical. “The Chinese apparently backed off temporarily to ensure the success of the BRICS Summit and the Party Congress,” says Mohan Malik, professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu.
But the disengagement doesn’t mean either side trusts the other more now than before, meaning watch out again once the scheduled events end in China. The two sides could easily retrench at the plateau, experts say. “The fact that Indian and Chinese statements have described the mutual withdrawal deal in completely different language means that there remain strong disagreements,” Malik says. “So neither side is going to lower its guard by pulling back troops.”
Indian forces pulled back 500 meters to a ridge-top post, Chellaney said, and “can quickly intervene” if China restarts the roadwork on Doklam plateau. China has withdrawn troops and construction equipment but lashed out verbally this week at India. One Chinese state-run media report accuses India of “trespassing” at the plateau and possibly “pretending to go to war in the hope of forcing China into making concessions,” for example. Beijing officials say they reserve the right to send their troops back.
The two sides separately dispute two other border tracts, China controlling one and India the other. India further resents China’s military support for Pakistan, which has its own territorial disputes with New Delhi. Over the past decade Beijing has tried to solidify claims to disputed lands along its borders as well in the East and South China seas. It shows little signs of stopping despite push-back from other countries. “A fresh crisis could flare if the PLA tries again to build the controversial road to the Indian border,” Chellaney says.