Almost two and a half months after the start of a standoff between their troops at Doklam, India and China Monday decided to de-escalate and withdraw their soldiers from the site at the trijunction with Bhutan. This disengagement comes a week before Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to travel to Xiamen in China for the BRICS summit from September 3 to 5. The move was announced by both foreign ministries almost simultaneously in the afternoon. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) issued two statements through the day and in its second statement in the evening, it was made clear that both sides had withdrawn their troops.
A government source told The Indian Express that troop withdrawal has been “mutual” and “simultaneous” but “sequential”. However, the source refused to elaborate which side began the withdrawal. “The two sides went back to their positions almost simultaneously…following standard operating procedures of withdrawal,” the source said.
The terms of agreement between the two sides which led to the breakthrough remained under wraps. “If they are clearing the standoff site then our purpose is solved, even if the Chinese do not say it publicly. We have got over this hump, and will see what happens next,” a top official said.
The statement issued by the External Affairs Ministry at noon stated that the “expeditious disengagement of border personnel at the faceoff site at Doklam has been agreed to and is ongoing”. The spokesperson of the Chinese foreign ministry briefed the media at 12.45 pm IST and confirmed that “India has pulled back all its trespassing personnel and equipment to the Indian side of the boundary. The Chinese personnel on the ground has verified this”.
Nearly 350 Indian soldiers had moved into the plateau on June 18 to stop the Chinese from constructing a motorable road from a turning point in the plateau to Jampheri ridge in Bhutan. The Chinese had also moved troops from their army such that the soldiers from two sides were in a faceoff situation around 150 m away. This standoff was a few metres away from the Indian military post at Doka La.
Announcing the disengagement move Monday noon, the MEA said: “In recent weeks, India and China have maintained diplomatic communication in respect of the incident at Doklam. During these communications, we were able to express our views and convey our concerns and interests…On this basis, expeditious disengagement of border personnel at the faceoff site at Doklam has been agreed to and is ongoing.” Later, around 6 pm, the MEA, in a second statement, said: “We had earlier in the day announced that following diplomatic communications, expeditious disengagement of border personnel of India and China at the faceoff site at Doklam was ongoing. This process has since been almost completed under verification.”
The reference to both “India and China” in the second statement was official confirmation of both sides withdrawing to their sides. The second statement underlined India’s position that it’s “only through diplomatic channels” that differences on such matters can be addressed. “Our principled position is that agreements and understandings reached on boundary issues must be scrupulously respected,” the MEA said, referring to the 2012 understanding between the Special Representatives on border talks and countering the Chinese government invoking the 1890 “historical convention”.
“India’s policy remains guided by the belief that peace and tranquility in the border areas is an essential pre-requisite for further development of our bilateral relationship. The two countries had also agreed in Astana in early June that differences should not be allowed to become disputes and that India-China relations must remain stable. We look forward to continuing engagement with the Chinese side on this basis,” the MEA said. This thrust on “peace and tranquility in the border areas” was the underlining of New Delhi’s position that status quo should not be changed unilaterally.
Indian government sources maintained that Beijing has been “apprised” of India’s “concerns” on Chinese “road-building” at the site — which changes the status quo and has security implications for India. The use of the terms “concerns and interests” by the MEA is indicative of these terms agreed to by both sides, sources said.
However, Beijing has not clearly said that it will not undertake the road-building project, and has said that it will “continue to exercise its sovereignty”. This, according to Indian officials, indicates that it will continue to patrol, as before, to which the Indian side has not objected so far.
As the Indian statement doesn’t mention ‘mutual’ disengagement, it has not been confirmed that the Chinese soldiers also moved away from the standoff site at the same time. The Chinese spokesperson, however, said that “in light of the changes of the situation on the ground, China will make necessary adjustments and deployment in accordance with the changes”.
The nature of its change in deployment and the time-lines for these adjustments have not been clarified but following the Indian withdrawal, there remains no reason for the Chinese troops to continue staying in Dolam plateau. Before the standoff began on June 18, there was no Chinese troop deployment in the area. There has been no statement from Bhutan on the disengagement on its territory so far. Although the Indian statement on Monday doesn’t mention status quo, many observers claim that the Chinese have agreed to not construct the road as a quid pro quo for the withdrawal.
Official sources confirmed later that all road building equipment has been withdrawn by Chinese side including bulldozers, tents and construction equipment. It doesn’t, however, carry any promises about not undertaking road construction in the future. The Chinese spokesperson had reiterated many times during his briefing that “China will also continue to exercise its sovereignty and territorial integrity in accordance with historical conventions”. This led Congress MP and chairman and parliamentary standing committee on external affairs, Shashi Tharoor, to ask on Twitter: “would the disengagement be simultaneous or sequential? Are there any undertakings from the Chinese that they will not rebuild the road next month? Did we blink?”
The sudden breakthrough also led to some confusion in foreign embassies in Delhi who had been watching the situation closely. While lack of any official confirmation about the agreed terms of disengagement left them groping for more information, they sounded relieved that Asia’s two biggest powers had peacefully averted a potential confrontation.