Just over a year ago in Tashkent, President Xi Jinping had turned down Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s request to allow India into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). India did not fulfill all the criteria, Xi had smiled and told Modi. Today, as the two leaders meet on the margins of the BRICS Summit in Xiamen, the mutual withdrawal of their troops from Doklam on August 28 may or may not be top of mind. But the Prime Minister will certainly have reason to press Xi’s hand just a bit more firmly.
The fact is that around South Asia, including in Pakistan, there is grudging admiration at the way India has handled China in Doklam. By first withdrawing in the morning of August 28, and then allowing China to save face by withdrawing its own personnel and roadbuilding equipment the same afternoon, Modi has demonstrated that Delhi can stand up to Beijing with firmness and maturity, with a minimum of fuss.
To be sure, Xi, general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, has read his Mao Tse-Tung — and is aware of Mao’s theory of strategic retreat. He knows how, in December 1930, Mao and Chu Teh had ordered a withdrawal of the communist revolutionary forces to the hills, and then crushed the Kuomintang forces that rushed in after them.
“Of course, strategic retreat has its difficulties,” Mao wrote. “To pick the time for beginning the retreat, to select the terminal point, to convince the cadres and the people politically — these are difficult problems demanding solution.” (Selected Military Writings of Mao Tse-Tung) In the run up to August 28, with the BRICS Summit barely a week away in the same city in which he cut his communist teeth, President Xi realised he had to take charge.
In a comment in the Global Times, the Chinese newspaper that had led the attack against India on Doklam, Shen Yi of Fudan University conceded on September 3: “…Soon after, the two sides withdrew their troops, at the same time New Delhi claimed. Chinese media released their statement a couple of hours later, losing the initiative in the war of public opinion. When repeatedly asked by reporters about the withdrawal, a spokesperson from the Chinese side hesitated to answer, allowing unnecessary room for interpretation. Because of this, many media opted to side with India’s stance, taking on board India’s inferred logic rather than see it from the perspective of China’s international strategy.”
“If the Chinese had built their road and taken the heights, they would be looking over Siliguri,” said an Indian official, adding, “We could not let that happen.” For 72 long days, from June 16 when Bhutanese troops sought to prevent the Chinese from building the road (Indian soldiers went in on June 18) to August 28 when both sides withdrew, India and Bhutan together held the line at Doklam with great grit and determination. Delhi and Thimphu remained constantly in touch, through regular, diplomatic conversation as well as backchannels. With the standoff taking place in a foreign country, India left it to Bhutan to take the public lead. Thimphu issued a statement on June 29, for example, asking China to return to pre-June 16 positions, which Delhi backed.
Certainly, Bhutan’s former King, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, and the royal family, which the people of the kingdom hold in great reverence, played an extremely important role by being supportive of India’s concerns. The young monarch, 37-year-old Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk, who has, over the last decade, led Bhutan’s transition to democracy, and who spent a year at the National Defence College in Delhi before taking over from his father in 2006, contributed immensely. A small example of the smoothness of the India-Bhutan relationship: a week before the withdrawal, the King was in the southern Bhutanese town of Samtse, to get to which he briefly entered Indian territory before going back into Bhutan — a manouevre that was gone through completely seamlessly.
Perhaps one of the biggest learnings from the standoff is the need for India to reach out much more to the people of Bhutan. This is all the more important to counter critics such as Wangcha Sangey who have been attacking India on social media. (“Bhutan was taken for granted by the Indian politicians and bureaucrats because most Bhutanese are too meek and selfish personal benefit-seekers. And some Bhutanese were only too happy even to support Indian attempt to takeover Bhutan.”) Several Bhutanese told this correspondent on a recent visit that the decision to scrap Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 notes “without as much as telling us”, had hurt them badly. The rupee is legal tender in Bhutan and equivalent to the ngultrum, and following the demonetisation decision, thousands of Bhutanese found themselves stuck with cash they couldn’t use. “We don’t mind if Indian troops are eyeball to eyeball with the Chinese, but at least tell us about big decisions like demonetisation,” said a restaurant owner.
The Global Times has described the end of the Doklam standoff as a “victory for China” and “a comprehensive demonstration of China’s major-country strategy and the wisdom and ability of the Chinese leadership”. This, it has said, was “no less significant” than the 1953 Korean war armistice, or China’s 1979 war against Vietnam. There has been no mention of the 19 rounds of talks between India and China since 2003, or of Beijing’s going back on the 2005 agreement with Delhi to resolve its border issues.