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China-India border dispute

Lessons learned in tense China-India border row but it will cast a long shadow, analysts say

With the BRICS summit next week and growing economic cooperation at stake, both sides had good reason to end the stand-off

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 August, 2017, 9:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 August, 2017, 1:33pm

The protracted border row between China and India has ended in time for a summit of the world’s leading emerging market economies, but analysts say it will cast a long shadow over the geopolitical landscape.

Details remain sketchy of how the worst border dispute between the two countries in more than three decades was defused after both sides announced on Monday they had agreed to an “expeditious disengagement” of troops from a remote Himalayan plateau.

But experts believe both China and India had good reason to end the 70-day military face-off along an unmarked border in Doklam – which is known as Donglang in China – amid growing fears of armed conflict between the nuclear-armed neighbours.

For Beijing, the upcoming summit of BRICS leaders – from Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – in Xiamen next week, the biggest international gathering ahead of the five-yearly Communist Party national congress, appears to have provided impetus for a rapprochement with New Delhi.

China ‘halts road building’ to end India border stand-off

“China understands the importance of creating a favourable atmosphere for the success of the summit and the all-important party congress,” said Wang Dehua, head of South Asia studies at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies.

China has pulled out all the stops with meticulous preparations for the summit and Beijing did not want it overshadowed by the border row, according to Chinese experts.

“The event – where Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi are supposed to meet – has offered a way out of this unexpectedly tense stand-off, although there are different interpretations as to which side actually compromised more,” said Yue Gang, a retired colonel in the PLA’s General Staff Department.

Harsh Pant, a professor of international relations at King’s College London, also said the pull-out of Indian troops was “absolutely” in response to the upcoming BRICS summit.

“China needed this to be resolved [ahead of BRICS],” he said by phone from New Delhi. “If any country was under pressure, it was China, not India. There was no reason for India to do anything else apart from holding on and digging in at the border, as India was doing.”

But Wang noted that embattled Indian leader Modi was also keen to make the summit a success because it was a key international platform for India’s growing economic cooperation with China.

Although the Chinese foreign ministry sounded triumphant announcing that the Indian troops had withdrawn, experts say it was Beijing who had compromised by seemingly accepting New Delhi’s demand that it stop road construction in the disputed area where China, India and Bhutan meet.

“Despite Beijing’s deliberate ambiguity, China has apparently made substantial concessions in order to end the dispute,” Yue said.

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Since the stand-off began in mid-June, India had urged China to put a stop to road building near its Bhutan border. Beijing had meanwhile insisted that India must withdraw its troops from the area before negotiations to peacefully resolve the crisis could begin.

China said on Tuesday that the weather was a factor affecting its construction of roads and other infrastructure along the Himalayan border with India, and it would maintain patrols in the contested area. But most analysts say China appears to have quietly halted the project after weeks of intense diplomatic negotiations.

“India has got exactly what it has wanted. It was a humiliating defeat for China to cave in to pressure from India despite all the tough talk,” Yue said.

Pant also said the Indian side may have agreed to withdraw because it got what it wanted on the Doklam plateau – restoration of the status quo before China began construction along the unmarked border.

Citing Indian government sources, India Today said on Tuesday that intense negotiations had been held in recent weeks between Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi and their representatives under instruction from Xi and Modi.

Rohan Mukherjee, an Asian affairs expert at Yale-NUS College, Singapore, said the Doklam crisis had altered expectations on both sides.

“China will take India’s willingness to risk a conflict in order to show resolve more seriously in the future, and India has learned the value of maintaining a firm military posture on the ground combined with restraint at the level of diplomacy and public discourse. This might produce a period of calm on both sides before new irritants emerge,” he said.

Indian Prime Minister Modi will visit China to attend BRICS summit, following end of tense border stand-off

While experts were divided over which side was the winner in the latest episode of a long-running territorial dispute that goes back half a century, they agreed it would put serious strain on bilateral ties and would take time to heal.

“In the case of the South China Sea and East China Sea disputes, China is more aggressive [because] most of its neighbours are heavily dependent on China economically – but that was not the case with India,” said Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedy, a research associate at the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore.

But both sides would have learned from the latest stand-off and border tensions were unlikely to flare again in the immediate future, according to James Char, an associate research fellow with the China Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

“China and India would appear to be more than capable of compartmentalising the border issue from their overall bilateral relations,” he said. “Both sides can be expected to pause their previous activities in the near to medium term.”

Additional reporting by Sarah Zheng