India withdraws troops from disputed Himalayan region, defusing tension with China

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India has begun withdrawing troops from a disputed Himalayan region on the border with China, foreign ministries from the two countries announced Monday, defusing a tense stand-off that had threatened to provoke armed conflict between the nuclear-armed Asian rivals.

For the past two months, Indian and Chinese troops had faced off on a plateau in the Doklam area in Himalayas, after Indian troops moved in to prevent the Chinese military building a road into territory claimed by India’s close ally, Bhutan.

China had repeatedly and furiously denounced the Indian move as a direct infringement of its sovereignty, demanded an immediate and unconditional withdrawal, and warned that conflict was a real possibility if that didn’t happen.

On Monday, the two sides announced they had reached an agreement. But it was unclear if Beijing offered any concessions in return, such as agreeing to halt the construction of the road.

China said only that it would redeploy its forces according to the changing situation, but would continue to patrol and garrison the area.

In a short statement, India’s Ministry of External Affairs said the two countries had maintained diplomatic communication over the dispute in recent weeks.

“During these communications, we were able to express our views and convey our concerns and interests,” it said. “On this basis, expeditious disengagement of border personnel at the face-off site at Doklam has been agreed to and is on-going.”

China’s Foreign Ministry said it was happy to confirm that all Indian “individuals and facilities” have withdrawn to the India side of the border.

Without saying so directly, Beijing implied it would not need to keep so many troops stationed in the area, having moved a number there in response to the Indian deployment.

“The Chinese frontier defense force will continue to patrol and garrison in the Doklam area,” spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular news conference. “The situation at the spot has changed, and China will adjust and deploy according to current situation.”

Hua said China will “exercise its sovereign rights according to the historical treaty and guard its territorial sovereignty.”

China maintains the area in question was listed as on its side of the border under the 1890 “Convention Between Great Britain and China Concerning Sikkim and Tibet.”

“The Chinese government values the development of a harmonious neighborly relationship with India,” Hua said. “China hopes India will join it in maintaining border peace and stability on the basis of mutual respect, and keep the relationship developing in a healthy way.”

Earlier on Monday, the state-owned China Daily newspaper had warned India stood “to face retribution”over the incident, arguing that New Delhi was complacent if it thought China was not prepared for military conflict if necessary.

The announcement clears the air ahead of a meeting of the “BRICS” countries in China this weekend, a bloc comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

“It’s hugely  good news,” said Wang Dehua, an Indian studies expert at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he said, had “made a sound decision at a crucial moment  that will benefit both Chinese and Indian people and the generations to come.”

“We have avoided falling into the situation where two major countries with ancient civilizations become hostile enemies,” Wang said, while cautioning against declaring the incident a big win or a diplomatic victory for China.

He said China would try to address India’s security concerns when Modi visits for the summit, but would continue building roads in border areas. “We should show them that building roads will be beneficial for all and there’s nothing to worry about,” he said.

In India, some experts interpreted the statements — and New Delhi’s comments about having raised its security concerns — to mean that China had quietly agreed to stop building the road in question, but would not say so publicly.  Others said this was not clear.

“As the Chinese have stated publicly that Indian troops have withdrawn, India should also state clearly that China won’t make that road,” Sushant Singh, associate editor of the Indian Express tweeted. “That will clear all the confusion about the terms on which the disengagement happened.”

Noting that China said it would continue to fulfill its territorial rights, opposition member of parliament Shashi Tharoor asked if this would include road-building.

“Did we blink?,” he tweeted. 

The tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan was inadvertently swept up into the dispute when Indian soldiers moved from a nearby garrison into territory Bhutan contests with China, to block a crew from China’s People’s Liberation Army that was preparing to build a “motorable” road in the area.

A few hundred troops from India and China were eventually deployed in a standoff that has produced harsh rhetoric — mostly from the Chinese side — and sparked a period of tension between the neighbors not seen for decades, analysts have said.

Although India and China have often sparred over the disputed areas along their estimated 2,100 mile border — and fought a brief war over it in 1962 — this clash was unusual because it involved a third country and came at a time when relations between India and China were at a low ebb.

Whether India — long a great patron of Bhutan — moved after coordinating with Bhutanese forces, as the Indians have said, or moved in on their own, as China claims, is the subject of much debate.

The Bhutan government was careful not to make comments and inflame tensions, and, aside from one brief statement from their Foreign Ministry, maintained a calculated silence throughout the dispute.

By Simon Denyer and Annie Gowen
The Washington Post

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