New Delhi: Wednesday marks the second anniversary of the end of the 73-day long military standoff between Indian and Chinese troops in Bhutan’s Doklam region – seen as the most serious between the two Asian giants in decades. It was a development watched keenly across the world -- from the US to Japan and other countries in Southeast Asia who have had their fair share of maritime disputes with an aggressively expanding China.
That New Delhi held its own, refusing to back down and caused China to step back was seen as a victory for India.
The face-off came to a head on 16 June, 2017, when China attempted to extend a road southward in Doklam, a territory claimed by both China as well as Bhutan. Indian troops had moved in to prevent the Chinese troops, with New Delhi claiming to have acted on behalf of Bhutan, with which it has a 'special relationship'.
India was also concerned that a road in the Doklam region could allow China to cut off the Indian mainland’s access to its northeastern states.
Even before the Doklam standoff, India-China ties had been tenuous.
Beijing had blocked India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group that controls global atomic commerce and also refused to allow the UN to brand Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM)’s chief Maulana Masood Azhar a terrorist. India’s objections to a strand of China’s ambitious Belt and Road infrastructure initiative running through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir also went unheeded.
Beijing has also never approved of India allowing Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama to visit Arunachal Pradesh which China claims as its territory.
Though there are no public records on how the Doklam standoff was resolved, people familiar with the matter say that it was agreed that India would step back first, five kilometres from the site, following which the Chinese troops pulled out, allowing Beijing a face-saver.
After the resolution, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited China in September 2017 for the BRICS summit. On the sidelines of the summit, he met Chinese president Xi Jinping and the two agreed to reaffirm ties and carry forward an agreement made earlier that year that differences should not be allowed to become disputes.
Both leaders agreed that “peace and tranquility in the border areas was a prerequisite for the further development of our relationships and that there should be more efforts made to really enhance and strengthen the level of mutual trust between the two sides," then foreign secretary (and now foreign minister) S Jaishankar had told reporters.
Modi and Xi also agreed that “it is natural that between neighbours and large powers, there would be areas of difference but where there is an area of difference, it should be handled with mutual respect and efforts should be made to find common grounds in addressing those areas and specifically with regards to defence, the personnel involved in defence and security must maintain strong contacts and cooperation and ensure that the sort of situation which happened recently do not recur," Jaishankar had said.
Following the meeting at BRICS, the two leaders again met in Wuhan in April 2018 in what was billed as an “informal summit," taking forward the reset in ties. At the summit, Modi and Xi “agreed that India and China as major powers with strategic and decisional autonomy will pursue peaceful, stable and balanced relations," foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale told reporters.
The summit led to agreements like increasing Indian agricultural exports to China, boosting people-to-people ties to promote mutual trust. It was also agreed that Chinese president Xi would visit India in 2019 for the next “informal" summit between the two.
There seemed to be an understanding between India and China that while there will be strategic competition when it comes to interests in Sri Lanka or Maldives, and the two neighbours will not allow differences to sharpen on bilateral issues, analysts said.
According to analysts, the understanding reached after Doklam between the two sides seems to be holding as of now.
This could also be because China has been beset with problems of its own, including a slowing economy and a trade war with the US. Western nations have also warmed up to what were seen as India’s arguments against the Belt and Road Initiative including how China’s overture was saddling small countries with debts and having adverse effects on the environment.