In a big relief, wise counsels have prevailed in Delhi and Beijing and helped defuse the prolonged military stand-off at the India-Bhutan-China trijunction. Forget the quibbling on the divergence between the statements issued on Monday by the two foreign offices announcing de-escalation. Ignore, too, the speculation on who won what in the crisis. It has always been clear that there would be no winners from the escalation in Doklam that would have made the 1962 border war between Delhi and Beijing appear to be a minor skirmish. The massive growth in the military capabilities of the two nations over the last six decades should leave no one in doubt on the enormous costs of a military conflict between India and China.
If the scale of consequences was an important deterrent against escalation, Delhi and Beijing deserve some diplomatic credit for arriving at an understanding that had to be sold on both sides. The essence of the deal — mutual disengagement and restoration of the situation before the Chinese construction of a road towards the Indian border and the deployment of Indian troops blocking that activity — is close to what Delhi wanted. Beijing, which had demanded an unconditional Indian withdrawal from Doklam, has had a greater difficulty in presenting the return to status quo as victory. But the Indian decision to announce the withdrawal first seems to have given sufficient political space for Beijing to accept the outcome while affirming its sovereignty over a territory that is also claimed by Bhutan. India has got Beijing to suspend the construction of a road that Delhi cited as a big security threat. China, in turn, got the Indian army to pull out its troops from Doklam. The foreign office statements in Delhi and Beijing said different things but did not contradict each other.
The Doklam crisis has seen some uncharacteristic behaviour from China and India. Usually sophisticated Beijing sounded rather crude and bombastic. Normally jumpy Delhi displayed a rare calm under Chinese pressure. India’s restraint during the Doklam crisis and the ability to stand up to China have certainly made an impression around the world. But Delhi has its task cut out in coping with a growing military imbalance with China and Beijing’s assertive political will that together promise to make the long and contested border a perennially active one. Beijing, in turn, must recognise that it has underestimated Delhi’s political resolve and could pay a big price for its strategic condescension towards India. An appreciation of the costs of conflict that allowed India and China to avoid a war in Doklam should also encourage them to explore the long overdue political resolution of their multiple Himalayan disputes.