Doklam Plateau - India, Bhutan and China Stand-Off
As I write this, India finds itself in a border stand-off with China. But unlike other times when India and China squared off due to difference in ‘perception’ of Line of Actual Control (LAC) along their vast border from eastern Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh, the present stand-off is because of Chinese incursion in a region which is disputed territory between China and Bhutan. India has got involved because development in this area has serious security ramifications for India.
However, none of the reports barring one (Eyeball-to-eyeball in the Himalayas – Indian Express – Manor Joshi-June 30, 2017) gives correct information about the geographical region where this stand-off has taken place and likely reason for this new conflict. Even the report by Manoj Joshi only gives a broad outline of the area.
The objective of this report is to understand the boundary issue, claims of either party (China and Bhutan), geography in the area and Indian sensitivities. The thrust of this write-up is to clear the ambiguity about the exact area where present stand-off is taking place. And why India is reacting much more strongly – to the extent of helping to keep PLA out of Bhutanese territory.
A friend (Twitter @bennedose. He has a YouTube channel called cybersurg with great military videos) made a video on the Doklam Plateau stand-off. It is basis the research and maps in this article. Gives a good overview of the area. In case you don't want to read the whole article, this is a good short commentary. Otherwise as well, 3D visualization will assist in better understanding of the article.
Story so far – Confusion!
When the news story broke, it spoke about Chinese removing IA bunkers in Tri-Junction Area after IA prevented the Chinese from undertaking road construction activity. These reports mentioned certain key areas like Tri-junction, Dhoka La and Doklam Plateau.
This caused confusion because if you look at map on the Google Earth, these areas are not contiguous. Have a look at the map below. I’ve marked position of Dhoka La, India (Sikkim)-Bhutan-China (Chumbi Valley) boundary tri-junction and Doklam Plateau (as shown on Google Earth). Doklam Plateau from Tri-junction is about 30 km as the crow flies while Dhoka La is about 5 km south of boundary tri-junction.
Source: Google Earth
So, a question arises – If the Chinese were building a road in the Doklam Plateau on China-Bhutan border, how did the Indian Army stop their work? And how does the boundary tri-junction area and Dhoka La come into picture?
Bhutan-China border dispute
As per Royal Government of Bhutan (RGOB), there are four areas of boundary alignment dispute between China and Bhutan. However, as per the Chinese, there are 7 such areas of boundary dispute. It is this mismatch in number and extent of disputed areas which has led to the present stand-off.
I’m not getting into the entire Bhutan-China boundary issue but will restrict myself to the current area of conflict.
As per the statement of King of Bhutan in National Assembly, there are four areas under dispute:
- Up to 89 sq km in Doklam are under dispute (along Gamochen at the border, to the river divide at Batangla and Sinchela, and down to the Amo Chhu River)
- Approximately 180 sq km in Sinchulumpa and Gieu are under dispute. The border line stretches from Langmarpo Zam along the river up to Docherimchang, through the river divide to Gomla, along the river divide to Pangkala, and finally down to the Dramana River.
- Starting from Dramana, along the border line up to Zingula, and along the line of river divide down to Gieu Chhu River, and finally to Lungkala
- Starting from the middle of Pasamlum, along the border line and the river divide to Dompala and Neula, going from Neula along the border line and the river divide to Kurichhu Tshozam, along the river divide to Genla then to Mela, and go all the way to the east.
Point (1) above is centred along and east of the India-Bhutan-China boundary tri-junction area. Point (2) refers to area marked as Doklam Plateau on Google Earth and shows as disputed with broken line. As per the RGOB, there is no contiguity between areas covered under Point (1) and Point (2) while Chinese claim an intermediate area as well. This makes the Chinese claims much larger than Bhutanese interpretation and root cause of present conflict.
I’ve not been able to access any corresponding maps from the Royal Government of Bhutan (RGOB) which show the alignment of the above area. As Manoj Joshi writes in his Indian Express article, “However, none of these features are visible on publicly available maps and it requires an effort to locate them.” I’ve created some indicative maps after searching through multiple sources and will come to that shortly.
And while I could not find any RGOB Map showing disputed areas, I did come across a Chinese map which shows the 7 disputed areas as per them. Please see the map below:
Areas with red and blue line indicated disputed areas as per the Chinese. Blue line indicated border alignment as per RGOB while red-line indicated the alignment of Bhutanese boundary as per the Chinese.
The disputed area in west is the center of present conflict. And as per the Chinese, there are three major boundary alignment issues within this sector. Compared to this, RGOB claims only two non-contiguous areas of dispute. As the Chinese map shows, Chinese claim is much larger than what the RGOB considers. The details of the three disputed areas in this region are as follows:
- Mountain ridge from Batang La to Merukla/Merugla upto Sinchela
- The mountain ridge from Sinchela to River Amo; along River Amo from River Amo to its confluence with River Langmarpo;
- Region along the River Langmarpo from the confluence of River Lang-marpo and River Amo up to the confluence of Docherimchang; along River Rong from River Docherimchang confluence to Gomla; Gomla ridge from Gomla to Pankala, and Pankala ridge from Pankala to Dramana ridge; Dramana ridge from Dramana to River Tromo and River Zhiu confluence, River Zhiu from River Tromo- River Zhiu confluence to Lungkala;
If you look at the RGOB and Chinese interpretation of boundary dispute, you realize that Point (1) in both the interpretation of boundary alignment is same. But in case of the Chinese, point (2) and (3) taken together, create a contiguous disputed area and vastly expand the area which they claim as part of Tibet. From Bhutanese perspective, point (3) in Chinese claim is same as per their understanding but is not contiguous to area under Point (1).
The blow-out map below shows how the Chinese claims are with respect to present alignment:
I’ve tried to create the Chinese claim line on a Google Earth map by using features I could identify. These features correspond to those mentioned in Chinese claims as mentioned earlier.
Source: Google Earth
The Chinese are using their usual tactics – of claiming a ridge-line/water-shed (and corresponding mountain passes) which gives them depth and allows them to control west-east or vice versa movement. In case of Sino-Indian boundary in eastern Ladakh, Chinese claim line lie along ridge to west of Indian claim line. And controls all the important mountain passes which can facilitate east-west or vice-versa movement. In this case, the boundary envelope has been pushed east with the following objectives:
- Give depth to Chinese positions in the Chumbi Valley. As has been widely reported, Chumbi Valley is extremely narrow with steep mountain sides on either side. This gives very less rea estate to PLA to station troops and provisions. Further, this puts them at disadvantage vis-à-vis India position on ridges to the west along Sikkim-Tibet border.
- The present main access route into Chumbi Valley and Yadong is S-204. Given the depth of Chumbi Valley and its alignment, is susceptible to India interdiction. Chinese can consider developing a loop in S-204 which is further east and passes through the claimed area. This will give it relatively better protection against Indian fire assault.
- Most important gain is towards south part – opens up the restricted funnel of Chumbi Valley and brings it that much closer to Indian Siliguri Corridor. Indian area in Siliguri corridor comes under long range artillery fire from within Chumbi Valley
The present stand-off is in the Doklam Plateau area, region marked in blue circle in the previous map. If we revisit the Chinese boundary alignment claim in this region, it mentions the following:
- Mountain ridge from Batang La to Merukla/Merugla upto Sinchela
- The mountain ridge from Sinchela to River Amo; along River Amo from River Amo to its confluence with River Langmarpo
The map below highlights these areas and alignment:
Source: Google Earth
In case Chinese assertions are expected, then India-China-Bhutan boundary will be at Gymochen. And Dokal La, which is presently on border between India (Sikkim) and Bhutan, will become a pass on Sino-Indian border.
A closer look at the satellite imagery shows that a road leads up from the Chumbi Valley to Senche La, crosses over to Bhutanese side, runs parallel to the Merug La-Senche La ridge line and then crosses back into Chumbi Valley at Merug La. A part of this road/track from Senche La also comes towards Doka La. It seems that Chinese have extended tracks from the Merug La-Sinche La ridge line onto the Doklam Plateau. And over the years, have slowly creeped forward claiming and controlling larger part of the plateau.
The map below shows various roads/tracks in the region:
What seems to be happening is that Chinese are trying to further expand their hold on the plateau. From the available news, it seems that Chinese were trying to create concrete roads in the region. The maps already show tracks which came about as Chinese saw no objection from RGOB. And in typical Chinese fashion, they’ll now claim existence of these tracks as proof of ownership – apart from historical claims.
Any further advance in this area poses security threat to India. Working in tandem with RBA, Indian Army seems to have stopped this construction activity within Doklam Plateau. This partly explains the apoplectic response from the Chinese – Indian Army is operating on Bhutanese territory and working in tandem with RBA to prevent further Chinese construction activity. Hence, the repeated references to this area having nothing to do with Sikkim-Tibet border and tri-junction.
India simply cannot afford to have Chinese control the Doklam plateau. And has to prevent any further occupation creep beyond what has already happened. If the Chinese were to occupy the Doklam Plateau and place the boundary on ridge-line going east from Gymochen towards Amo-Chu river, they control a dominating ridge-line which overlooks Indian territory across Bhutan.
The map below gives distance from this ridge-line towards location in Sikkim (a major communication axis) and a location in West Bengal.
I will update the analysis as and when more news becomes available.
Please point out mistakes, if any, and share any relevant information which can improve the analysis.
 Source: http://www.mtac.gov.tw/mtacbooke/upload/09403/0102/21.pdf