With no gain in sight and military escalation fraught with dangerous consequences, besides all the international opprobrium it would invite, China had to budge

New Delhi: India’s troop withdrawal deal with China is significant in many ways but the standout feature is that unlike in the rest of its neighbourhood, Beijing was unable to achieve its strategic goal of asserting its political and military dominance on New Delhi. Worse, it ended up triggering a challenge to its economic pre-eminence in the relationship.

So how did this happen? First, the facts. Any deal with China, as the past has shown, is not certain until it’s executed on the ground. By all accounts, the deal was firmed up three to four days ago but the execution process started on Wednesday with armoured tanks being withdrawn by both sides near Rezang La and Rechin La.

The Infantry columns still remain on these heights and they will move out gradually. The big picture is that if all goes according to plan, the entire withdrawal process should be completed in two weeks or so. But let’s also be clear that mutual distrust continues to inform the ground situation, hence verification processes will be granular and tricky.

Nevertheless, from an Indian standpoint, the deal is a good one. It shows that its strategy to stand up to China worked. And for that reason, it’s important to reflect on how China was finally compelled to negotiate on restoring the status quo ante of April 2020.

India responded to the Chinese march-up to its frontiers on three key fronts — military, economic and political. And each of them combined to produce a situation, where the only option left for Beijing was to either escalate matters militarily or retain troop deployments at the risk of it becoming a live justification of creating a multi-country anti-China military combine.

But for that to happen, India had to be militarily well positioned on ground to convey that it can hold off the Chinese army. And that happened through the military action of August 29-30. Indian troops went ahead and physically captured the heights of Rezang La, Rechin La, Mokhpari, Muggar Hill and Gurung Hill.

Now, these heights overlook the route through which China entered into the Chushul area of Ladakh in 1962. By occupying these heights, India had a clear sight of Chinese camps as well as its supply routes that could, if need be, interdicted.

For its part, China also responded by deploying troops close to Indian positions on these heights in a bid to neutralise this tactical advantage. Gradually, over the last few months, the troops from both sides were interlocked, with distances between them down to 75-100 metres at some places.

So, essentially, what existed was now a military stalemate. If China had a larger military presence, India had gained tactical advantage. What China had probably not factored in was the Indian intent to deploy at these heights through the winter months.

As this situation played out, India expanded its response to the economic arena, breaking the old bilateral understanding that differences arising from the boundary dispute will not be allowed to influence the rest of the relationship. India chose its areas well, especially on the digital side where China had big penetration plans.

India began to signal intent on decoupling of its economic relationship with China through careful recalibration of its domestic policies. And that achieved traction in other countries as well. India managed to ensure that all its key military suppliers — US, Russia, France, Israel among others — did not falter. On the contrary, most of them were cooperative, with the US even letting open its inventory for crucial winter clothing. It also gave China a peek into what possibilities may emerge from the strengthening of the Quad. The Biden transition did not alter that sentiment in Washington.

With no gain in sight and military escalation fraught with dangerous consequences, besides all the international opprobrium it would invite, China had to budge.

But that said, China has left India seriously warned. Also, India has now clearly emerged in Beijing’s eyes as the one immediate adversary who will not concede to China’s political will for economic and commercial reasons. That means new contours of conflict have been drawn for the future, which is why India must prepare, redouble efforts to build its border infrastructure and narrow the gap as fast as possible.