Heads of state from China and India met on the sidelines of an event Tuesday. Chinese President Xi Jinping talked with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the first time after their widely unexpected 73-day military standoff over a disputed border region in the Himalayas. They agreed on a need for closer communication on security matters, Indian media reported. Reports such as this one from China’s official Xinhua News Agency indicate that the two sides are willing now to work with each other. China’s foreign ministry said on its website it should pursue along with India “peace and stability” along their borders.
More on Forbes: Has India Called China’s Bluff Over Doklam?
Whether this exchange leads to a fuller dialogue and deters another border standoff, one of the two Asian powers’ worst crises since their war in 1962, is hard to say. Chinese troops aren’t far off from the border showdown site and the underlying sovereignty dispute hasn’t been solved. The whole thing could reignite except for one problem: the hard, cold elements.
The standoff at Doklam plateau began in June when the tiny mountain country of Bhutan found Chinese working on a highway on the plateau and called India for help. India and China sent some 300 troops apiece. China has quit the highway at least for now. Each side evidently underestimated how much the other cared about control of the plateau.
The glow from the Modi-Xi encounter at the BRICS Summit in southern China, an event designed to drive cooperation among emerging countries, should last at least as long as Xi is preparing for the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China on Oct. 18, a chance for him to shore up power. Leaders from the two giant nations would find it embarrassing to send troops back so soon after posing for the global media’s cameras.
But lets say the glow fades and everyone inevitably gets angry again — including Bhutan that also claims the plateau.
The Doklam plateau sits in the world’s highest mountain range, including its highest peak Mt. Everest. That was fine June 16 when the standoff began in cool summer weather. But the 89-square-kilometer plateau is at around 14,000 feet (4,267 meters) in elevation. Winter temperatures get down below zero. Photos from the site show snowfall. Troops arriving from lower elevations take five days to acclimate and avoid altitude sickness, according to this report, which adds that foot travel is the most common way for troops to get around.
China has temporary structures around the plateau, according to this account, but not much else would bunk soldiers through winter. To build something permanent would raise anger again from whoever didn’t build it. That was the effect of the Chinese highway project in June.
A miscalculation could reignite the standoff. Who owns Doklam remains disputed, likewise control of two other pieces of land along the Sino-Indian border. China and India also might deepen military positions that make the standoff feel permanent, says Sameer Lalwani, deputy director for American think thank The Stimson Center’s South Asia program. Yet those positions might be more comfortable at lower elevations.
“A third possibility is that the standoff remains tense but stable for a few months until it peter outs and eventually de-escalates by default when winter sets and both sides are compelled to quietly withdraw from the region,” Lalwani says.
By Ralph Jennings