INDIA’S National Security Adviser Ajit Doval does not appear to have brought back good tidings after a visit to Beijing. The standoff on the India-Bhutan-China trijunction is likely to persist and even stretch into months unless China has a change of heart. But the interaction at the top political level may have ebbed the threat of a clash that could spiral into something worse. India’s commendable restraint, in acute short supply when it comes to Pakistan, may have played a no mean role in reorienting the resolution of the military dispute towards talks. India did not react when the Chinese media stooped to name calling Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj and Doval.
Instead of joining battle with the Chinese media in cyberspace and losing control over the narrative, India has sought to steer the conversation back among diplomats by drawing attention to the established mechanisms for addressing the border issue. The fly in the ointment is that China may have tried to strengthen its infrastructure in a disputed area but it was doing so on its territory. So while India wants a simultaneous withdrawal of troops from both sides, China wants Indian soldiers to first walk back. Many compromise formulas have been aired such as a simultaneous withdrawal by Indian troops and the Chinese road building crew.
But any withdrawal by Indian troops while the PLA stays put will mean India may lose face after having jumped in the fray on behalf of Bhutan. Can a compromise formula work in a dispute that has the imprints of a broader geostrategic competition? We will never get to know whether the differences were discussed during the closed-door meetings in Beijing. But from all indications, both sides are in for a long haul since trust and mutual understanding are at a discount. The smooth conduct of the BRICS NSAs’ meeting suggests that the border dispute may not cast a shadow on the forthcoming five-nation summit. That suggests the diplomats have succeeded in decoupling the border standoff from Sino-Indian cooperation in BRICS. In the current environment of unsettled global equations, that should be an achievement.
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