The Ministry of External Affairs on Monday announced that following a diplomatic breakthrough Indian troops had begun disengaging at the Doklam border site. Later in the day, reports confirmed that the disengagement exercise had been completed, after a nearly two-and-a-half-month standoff, and the Chinese side had decided to withdraw road-construction equipment from the disputed site.
The end of the Doklam standoff
heralds quite possibly one of India’s most spectacular diplomatic victories in decades, and like any real victory it does not need shouting from rooftops. From beginning to end, the execution of India’s strategy here has been flawless and has achieved what India always wanted – Status Quo Ante -- and a much-needed counter to China’s salami tactics. The magnitude of the victory is only understood when we realise how crushing a personal defeat for Xi Jinping this actually is.
Xi, clearly identified as the mastermind of this Bhutan
gambit, had made a number of assumptions, all of which turned out to be erroneous. The first was the belief that India could be punished for its OBOR Lèse-majesté by weaning Bhutan
away from India. The logic was, if Bhutan
were sufficiently pressured, it would have to open direct talks with China
through embassy, and thereby open itself up to OBOR. The opinion in Beijing seems uniform as to the genesis of this particular showdown – it was in fact Xi putting personal pique over national interest. The net result of him personalising policy has been one of the biggest setbacks that China
has faced in recent memory.
Unwittingly, Chinese actions have simply added to India’s stature as a mature and responsible status quo power. What had been clear from day one was that China’s options were limited. On the one hand, if China
used force it would set a precedent that other countries could also respond in force to China’s land grabs, not to mention destroy several fundamentals of nuclear deterrence. On the other hand, if China
did not use force it would be seen as weak – encouraging other neighbours to counter-land/sea grabs. In effect, unwittingly, China
landed itself in a 'do-and-be-damned, don’t-do-and-be-damned' quandary. Knowing this full well, India chose to give China
a face-saving exit, though it could have just squatted on the disputed land in perpetuity – much like China
did. This is not a sign of weakness, this is a sign of confidence.
What exactly has happened here is that India has not only found the best way to deal with China, but also created a template for other countries to follow. China, while grabbing land, expects other countries to sit by passively and not shoot. What India’s actions have proved is that China
too has very few options, if other countries choose to squat on Chinese (or disputed) land. This now lies at the core of Xi Jinping’s problems in Beijing. As his purge of opponents intensifies, to compensate for his visible mismanagement of the economy, the opposition to him within the party is also intensifying. Beijing was full of rumours of the severe criticism he was facing from within the party as a result. Besides, Global Times, with its strident rhetoric, instead of serving as force multiplier, was actually making his situation within the politburo worse by preventing him from covering up his faux pas. Normally, all Xi Jinping would have to do would be to tell GT to tone it down. In this situation, he could not, as any such directive would be picked on by his opponents as a sign of weakness.
Sadly for Xi, even the stars conspired against him. It would have been particularly gut-wrenching for him to host Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the BRICS summit on Sunday, with Indian troops squatting on allegedly Chinese soil – an ironic replay of when his troops were squatting on our soil while Xi was being feted in Ahmadabad. There was also no way to reschedule the 19th party congress of the Chinese communist party, where he is anyway expected to be criticised harshly, albeit in private. This will not just be about Doklam, where his personal pique has led to China’s decades-old bluff on land squatting being called out, but also of what is seen as his personal mismanagement of the Korean nuclear and missile issue and the deployment of an avoidable missile shield that directly endangers Chinese security. At some point, Xi Jinping just decided to cut his losses and prevent this from spiralling into a bigger fiasco. It is to India’s credit that it avoided triumphalism and limited his public loss of face.
While it is very hard to tell, sources within the party in Beijing seem to think that the 19th party congress will see a very real leadership challenge. While this will not be an outright coup, it will certainly lead to some much-needed checks and balances on Xi Jinping’s power -- if not to curb him personally, to curb his personalisation of policy and self-destructive tendencies. Make no mistake about it – while our commentariat may say this is a “small victory” or a “draw” that it merely prevented a few kilometres of road being built – the fact is these few kilometres of road have damaged Xi Jinping’s standing within the CCP in a way nothing has in the past. However, to sound a note of caution, we must be clear that in all likelihood Xi will survive this, even if he gets much weakened and much embittered and there is no substitute for vigilance and no time to wallow in our victory.
However, it would be unfair to give overall the credit to the mere clumsiness and incompetence of Xi Jinping. What we must recognise here is that his plan would have worked just fine, were it not for the new chutzpah and professionalism across the board in New Delhi – PMO, Military, MEA. Rapidity of response, restraint in words, no hyperbole, no threats, no signs of backing down, conciliation or cowardice, no working at cross purposes – is this the same New Delhi we so love to hate? In the space of a few months, they have successfully stared down a superpower, defended an ally, prevented the entry of Bhutan
into the Chinese orbit, discredited the Chinese press with its own people, created a rift between the Chinese press and its leadership, destroyed 30 years of Chinese bluff and countered a tactic people thought could not be countered, gravely weakened China’s paramount leader, and exposed China
as a petulant child, while simultaneously reinforcing India’s image as a reliable and sober status quo power.
So, if you think preventing a few kilometres of road being built, and allowing continued Chinese patrols counts as a draw, think again, because this is the clearest case of game, set and match India in modern history – with lots of aces thrown in for good effect.
Abhijit Iyer-Mitra is Senior Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies and tweets as @iyervval
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.