For weeks, China’s Foreign Ministry had been vehement in its denunciations of India and insistence that New Delhi unconditionally withdraw troops that had trespassed into Chinese territory. Don’t underestimate us, China repeatedly insisted, we are prepared for military conflict if need be.
Yet on Monday it appeared as though Beijing, not New Delhi, had blinked.
Both sides withdrew troops to end the stand-off. Crucially, military sources told Indian newspapers that China has also withdrawn the bulldozers that were constructing a road on the plateau. That road, built on land contested between Bhutan and China, had been the reason Indian troops had entered the disputed area in the first place, in defense of its ally Bhutan.
The eventual deal allowed both sides to save face — India’s Ministry of External Affairs suggested in its statement that it had stuck to its “principled position” in the discussions, which was that road-building violated ongoing terms of a current boundary dispute between Bhutan and China.
Yet some experts said it was premature to start declaring victory, and China continued to be cagey in its official remarks.
China insisted its troops would continue to patrol and garrison the disputed area, as well as continue to exercise its sovereign rights there. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said Tuesday that the country would make plans for road construction “in accordance with the situation on the ground.”
Then, on Wednesday, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, appeared to chide India, saying, “We of course hope that India could learn some lessons from this, and [hope] events similar to this one would not happen again.”
There is precedence for China not sticking to agreements. In 2012, China and the Philippines agreed to withdraw naval vessels around Scarborough Shoal in a deal brokered by the United States. The Chinese ships never left, and have controlled it since.
Two factors may have helped talk China down and away from conflict — according to Indian media, Bhutan had been quietly resolute in talks with Beijing that it considered the Chinese road to be an infringement of a 2012 deal between the two countries that neither would develop infrastructure in disputed areas.
The second was a summit of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) nations due to be hosted by China this weekend. Beijing sets great store in set-piece summits of this nature, and the embarrassing possibility that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi might not attend may have focused minds in Beijing. India said Tuesday that Modi would, in fact, be attending the summit in Fujian province Sept. 3 to 5.
In India, news outlets painted Monday’s stand-down as a win for Indian diplomacy and their behind-the-scenes efforts to defuse tension before bullets flew. In China, the state media has also tried to paint the resolution as a victory for Asia and diplomacy — while staying vague about whether that road would still be built.
On social media, though, some Netizens asked uncomfortable questions.
“India withdrawing troops is a fact, did we give up some legitimate rights such as building road, this is what citizens care about, our focus is whether India’s withdrawal is unconditional, hope there is a clear explanation,” one user on China’s social media platform Weibo posted after news of the standoff.
By Simon Denyer and Annie Gowen