In the end, diplomacy triumphed and defused an eyeball-to-eyeball military stand-off that was getting increasingly bellicose. The diplomats who’ve been talking behind the scenes all through the conflict rushed to wrap up the deal before the Brics summit in Xiamen, China, on September 3. India would have been like Banquo’s ghost, an unwanted spectre looming over the conference, if it had refused to take part — a diplomatic embarrassment the Chinese wanted to avoid. But make no mistake, this was a confrontation closely watched throughout Asia from Vietnam and Japan all the way to Singapore and Malaysia. Would the Indian elephant be singed by the fire-breathing Chinese dragon or would it trumpet its defiance and stalk off to safety? “Right across the Indo-Pacific, India’s balance of firmness and diplomacy may well become a case-study in handling Chinese coercion,” noted one Australian analyst after the Doklam stand-off ended.
However, who got the best of the deal isn’t altogether clear. India’s view was the Chinese had to be allowed to save face. India pulled out its soldiers first; the Chinese followed. The two countries issued statements and the Chinese talked about continued patrolling. India gently pointed out it had objected to road-building, and not to Chinese patrolling. The Chinese statement conspicuously didn’t mention road-building. The assumption is there’s an unwritten pact that the road — which would threaten Indian positions — would not be built, but the question is whether that agreement will hold. More serious is the question whether the Chinese were looking to drive a wedge between Bhutan and India and if that has been achieved. But at another level, any stand-off that didn’t end in a clear victory for the Chinese must be viewed as a defeat of sorts for Beijing. After all, this is an emerging superpower hemmed in by 14 land-based neighbours including powerful states such as Russia, India and Vietnam. In addition, the Chinese are tussling with almost everyone in the South China Sea from Japan to Vietnam and the Philippines.
From a business standpoint, both sides would have been losers even if there had been a limited conflict. Chinese businessmen have, in recent years, looked upon India as the giant market of the future. Chinese mobile phone-makers have smashed the competition; they control almost half the market. India, meanwhile, buys huge amounts of power and telecom equipment from Chinese giants such as Huawei. From an Indian perspective, the threat of conflict brought to the fore, among other things, the fact that we buy 65 per cent of our drug raw materials from China. The Government has been talking about setting up bulk drugs industrial parks but that’s still on paper. So, will it be business as usual following the Doklam stand-off? Most likely yes, though mistrust on both sides will linger for a long time.
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