India has withdrawn its troops from disputed territory claimed by its neighbour and strategic rival China, ending a two-month Himalayan border stand-off that sparked a war of words and heightened fears about a potential wider conflict.
India’s ministry of external affairs on Monday said that an “expeditious disengagement of border personnel at the face-off site at Doklam has been agreed to and is ongoing”.
Beijing confirmed that Indian personnel had left the disputed territory claimed by both China and the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, a close ally of India that New Delhi treats as a near protectorate.
“The Indian side withdrew all persons and equipment that had crossed [the] border back to the Indian side,” China’s foreign ministry said.
Neither India nor China gave any indication of possible assurances made by Beijing to resolve the two-month stand-off, during which a contingent of Indian troops remained stationed in the disputed territory to prevent Chinese troops from building a road through the area.
“The key question is, does the agreement stop Chinese road extension,” said Shashank Joshi, a fellow at London’s Royal United Services Institute, a think-tank. “If it is, that is enough of a win for the Indian government. It will be taken as India standing up to Beijing, and Beijing blinking first.”
However, if there were a commitment from China to cease road building, it was unconfirmed by either side. India’s withdrawal was sufficient for Beijing to portray itself as having stood firm in the face of aggression — an important victory in the lead-up to the autumn’s 19th party congress, during which an eventual successor to President Xi Jinping will be chosen.
“All decisions China makes at this moment are coloured in some way by the 19th party congress,” said Dennis Wilder, a former top White House Asia adviser to George W Bush. “The drum beat in the Chinese press on the border problem has been fairly extraordinary and, I believe, reflects President Xi’s desire to look like a strong defender of Chinese sovereignty before the party congress.”
The Doklam stand-off began in mid-June, when People’s Liberation Army construction teams began building a road through the contested area towards India’s own strategic Jhamperi ridge, which overlooks India’s most vulnerable point, the “Chicken’s neck” linking its remote north-east to the country’s heartland.
Bhutan issued a démarche complaining about the Chinese roadwork on the territory that it claims as its own. But Indian troops physically intervened to stop construction, and then stationed themselves in the disputed area to ensure the work did not recommence.
New Delhi argued that the roadwork represented an unacceptable alteration of the status quo, and posed security implications for India. However, in an increasingly shrill verbal volley, Beijing repeatedly warned of the potential for military conflict if New Delhi did not withdraw its forces.
Mr Joshi said Beijing had probably offered a “tacit” indication that it would not push ahead with the roadwork in order to persuade India to withdraw its troops. But he said India and China were both likely to maintain heightened vigilance in the area following the confrontation.
Despite the relatively peaceful disengagement at Doklam, the stand-off is also likely to fuel the growing tensions between Beijing and New Delhi, particularly over China’s growing economic influence over South Asian countries that India typically considers as falling within its own sphere of influence.
Most recently, Beijing has been trying to court Bhutan, which has traditionally relied on India as its gateway to the outside world, and its main source of both economic and financial assistance.
Shi Yinhong, an international relations expert at Renmin University of China in Beijing, said: “We don’t actually know whether the Chinese side made some concessions, such as suspending the building of the strategic road. I’m not so sure that this was only a concession by India.”
Additional reporting by Sherry Ju in Beijing