Written by Amrita Jash.

Sino-Indian relations have witnessed a new low following the the two month military stand-off in the Doklam Plateau. The 1962 War brought Beijing and New Delhi to loggerheads, but ever since then both parties managed to maintain the status-quo at the border. However, Doklam added a new twist to the relationship. In the run-up to the 9th BRICS Summit, the central query is: Will the BRICS help rebuild trust between China and India?

The Doklam stand-off acted as a test case wherein both sides sought to checkmate the other, leading to a situation that saw both Beijing and New Delhi test each other’s resolve.

In the immediate aftermath of the Doklam crisis, it is imperative to note that the past episodes of territorial frictions at Daulat Beg Oldie, Depsang, Chumar, Trig Heights, Pangong Tso Lake and others in the western sector, to that of Asaphila, Samdurongchu, Changtze and others in Arunachal Pradesh did not result in military activity between China and India. What does this pattern suggest?

Doklam reflected a decisive departure from the existing status-quoist behavior and significantly extended the scope of the Sino-Indian dispute. This was the first time that China and India got involved in a military stand-off in a terrain that falls beyond their disputed boundary and also involved a third party – Bhutan. To note, the Doklam Plateau is primarily disputed between China and Bhutan. India’s involvement was triggered by China’s growing proximity to India’s strategic Siliguri Corridor raising the security stakes. Given these systemic forces at play, the Doklam stand-off acted as a test case wherein both sides sought to checkmate the other, leading to a situation that saw both Beijing and New Delhi test each other’s resolve.

The sudden cooling of tensions was therefore unexpected. The turning point came on 28 August with the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) press statement titled “Doklam Disengagement Understanding” that clearly posited that:

“In recent weeks, India and China have maintained diplomatic communication in respect of the incident at Doklam. During these communications, we were able to express our views and convey our concerns and interests. On this basis, expeditious disengagement of border personnel at the face-off site at Doklam has been agreed to and is on-going”.

While China’s Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying was reported saying that Chinese troops would continue to patrol the Doklam region. More importantly, Hua stated that:

“China will continue to exercise sovereignty rights to protect territorial sovereignty in accordance with the rules of the historical boundary”.

Furthermore, Chinese spokesperson Wu Qian stated that:

“We [Chinese] remind the Indian side to learn the lesson from this incident, earnestly respect the historical boundary and the basic principles of international law, meet China half way and jointly protect the peace and tranquillity of the border region”.

Although these statements represented a de-escalation in both action and rhetoric, uncertainties remain. It is important to note that although both sides confirmed their respective stands in calling off the impasse there was no joint statement or agreement issued by China and India. Therefore, is this diplomatic peace temporary?

The sudden cooling of tensions between Beijing and New Delhi can be attributed to the 9th BRICS Summit of 3rd-5th September, in Xiamen, China. Under China’s leadership, the 2017 theme for the Summit is “BRICS: Stronger Partnership for a Brighter Future” with four-fold priorities: 1) deepen BRICS cooperation for common development; 2) enhance global governance to jointly meet challenges; 3) carry out people-to-people exchanges to support BRICS cooperation; and 4) make institutional improvements and build broader partnerships.

As outlined, one of the key aims is to enhance a partnership that “upholds world peace”. For this, as China suggests it is important “to uphold international fairness and justice and call for peaceful and political settlement of disputes through dialogue and negotiation”.  Furthermore, in the background of the Doklam stand-off with India, Chinese President Xi Jinping on July 28, in the event of the 7th Meeting of BRICS High Representatives for Security Issues, posited that enhancing BRICS partnership “carries out meaningful exploration for building a new type of international relations”. Given these twin guidelines, the question that needs deliberation is: Will this ‘enhanced partnership’ help settle the uncertainties of the Doklam issue between China and India?

Given the complexities of the Doklam standoff, there were concerns as to whether India would participate in the Summit hosted by China. Ultimately India decided to participate but questions remain as to whether the BRICS relationship is able to mend the fractured ties between China and India. The increased military muscle flexing on either sides significantly reduced the space for dialogue and negotiation. The gravity of the situation can be measured from the fact that the stand off lasted two months. These factors may impede further BRICS engagement given China and India are the key players. Will Xi and Modi be able to come to mutual terms at the BRICS Summit is the question of the hour.

Amrita Jash is the Editor-in-Chief at IndraStra Global, New York. She has pursued a Ph.D in Chinese Studies from the Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She tweets at @amritajash. Image credit: CC by Ministry of External Affairs/Flickr.

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