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[1] 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

Doklam Plateau

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:

Source: Wikimapia


Present Issue

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.

[1] Source: http://www.mtac.gov.tw/mtacbooke/upload/09403/0102/21.pdf

Comments

Raul AD said…
Great Article clearing all the confusions. The Chinese must be exposed, I wonder why not the Indian Government is coming out with all the details of Land Grab of China.

India must refute all the Chinese bluff by all means, be it a war. This cannot be continued any further.

Sir, I have posted your blog on http://defenceforumindia.com/forum/threads/loc-lac-ib-warfare.79327/page-42 so that all this is known to as many people possible.

My apology for this, for without taking your permission for that.
very well researched article. I came here from another forum where I play the role of a web developer. If you need any help in that regards, please do let me know.
VR said…
@Raul AD - you're welcome.
Insightful article
The best I have read in this topic
shekhar said…
The confusion regarding names. The disputed area across Doka La is Dolam Plateau not Dokalam plateau. don't know, maybe some journo made a typo.
supertrooper said…
Extension of Chinese road from Dokala area to the next ridge- Jampheri ridge is the issue. Doklam is far from the scene
anil gupta said…
Excellent article. Great effort to create all the maps. Kudos
D.S. Sarao said…
Excellent -- and any change in the geographical / military positions of the Chumbi valley (Southern tip) gives the Chinese a psychological advantage of threatening the Siliguri corridor, the narrow strip between India and Bangladesh which connects Assam and Eastern India with the rest of India.
Militarily, the Chinese cannot launch any sustainable or worthwhile offensive to 'cutoff' the corridor unless the Western (Indian) or Eastern (Bhutan) flanks are widened and thus secured. This will require a major offensive.
The area has been coveted by the Chinese since many years and they have done the same earlier also , threatening, pushing, slapping Bhutanese Army personnel.
The matter is not as serious at present, but if the Chinese want to make it a bigger conflagration/shooting war;crossing of T'sang Po is the trigger. The minute troop movements are monitored here, it means we have to react and mobilise immediately, repeat, immediately.
VR said…
@Shekhar - During my research, all the documents that I accessed on the internet mentioned the name as Doklam. Yes, I understand that there is another area mentioned by the same name. But all these documents, including Press Release by Royal Government of Bhutan, Indian Ministry of External Affairs, statement of King of Bhutan to their National Assembly, mention the area as Doklam Plateau.

PS: I'm also from Dharamshala!
VR said…
@Supertrooper - Good Sir, if you can point out the location of the Jampheri Ridge on the map or coordinates, it would be of great help.

Also - wouldn't the Chinese road come towards our position on Doka La from the PLA road along/west of Merug La-Senche La ridge line?

Look forward to your comment(s).
Pacific Spirit said…
hi tiger,

wonderful article. i am the founder of iascurrent.com, a fauji kid myself. i was wondering if you would be interested in collaborating.

and lastly, i could not find a "contact us" option on this page. is it available?

regards
VaibhavSo far the monarchy, in rejecting the establishment of any P-5 embassy in Thimphu, has been sensitive to India's security interests. Outgoing premier Thinley injected an element of suspicion about Bhutanese dealings with China by meeting his Chinese counterpart in Rio last year, with China tweaking us by announcing that diplomatic ties were discussed,.n said…
Rohit,

Have always enjoyed your insight on these matters over years now. Superb terrain briefing.

Fasih Ahmed said…
Very well researched and near accurate contesting positions. Its the differential reading of the watershed ridge line.
Sunnygodu said…
Of late I have read a number of articles and tried to figure out all the details of locations on Google maps but, Sir I appreciate all your efforts to have put all the issues in the right perspective and you have explained the details in a very lucid way.
My own understanding was that the present Chinese incursion is principally into Bhutanese land but has tremendous strategic set back for us, your article explained the same very correctly and has left no ambiguity.THANK YOU.
Anonymous said…
Great Article. Thanks for sharing your hard work with us.
zeitgeist said…
Great well researched article. Why is it that no one think of suggesting a NO MAN"S LAND AREA between Chinese and Indian border cliams so that both wont enjoy advantages of possessing high gorund to peek on the other? Both parties withdraw to an area leaving 10 0r 15 Kms left in between as "no man's land" which both parties are at liberty to densely mine and keep it under covering fire to discourage crossing . If evil intentions for future exploitation are not there then such a solution must be acceptable to both to resolve the present face off and bring matters under control wthout loss of face and sense of insecurity on both sides ? Diplomatic solutions need be found .
MMM said…
Very nicely explained the intricacies of the issue vis a vis geographical situations... Great... Expecting more enlightened thoughts...👍👍
somsharma said…
Highly appreciated article with in depth study and analysis of fine top finish line
Rajender Khurana said…
A very useful study. You have done a great work and it needs to get disseminated widely in the country. It is very important that the citizen at large are aware of the reasons for which their armed forces are involved in conflicts.

Why don't you give presentation on this, through the medium of T.V. channels.




donJ said…
Great work and very usefull, i really appreciate this information for my current research
Ravi said…
Thanks, Rohit, for clearing up the confusion as to the location of the incident. Until you explained this is happening on Bhutan side and not near Trijunction or Sikkim, I was completely baffled. We need the press to be more careful. Good work.
drake said…
bing maps of this area exceptional.
Anonymous said…
check bing satelite images.
but bing markings appear wrong?
Please add the link to your excellent shortened video to the same article, as it's difficult to share both separately. This needs to be widely circulated. Pl put video-link towards beginning of article as it gives a quick perspective.
VR said…
@nandan chakraborty - that video has been done by a friend of mine using the research in this article. With his permission, I've added the video as well.
VR said…
@drake and others: Bing maps show different alignment. Something in line with Chinese claims as far as Doklam plateau and tri-junction is concerned.
Neeraj Doer said…
My take is: just put recent Pak- China Dosti in the mix.... may be its a tactic to engage Indian Troops on two fronts and try and damage Kashmir.... China is Super Smart and Cheap..... both as a friend as well as a foe....

Please let me know if I made any sense oR no- sense......
rohit K said…
This makes the issue more clear and sensible, if the disputed patch is on our border. The googlemaps shows the disputed territory about 25 KM away to the North east.

Can you also please bring out the GR of the point at which the Chinese and Indian were shown to be involved in pushing a few days back?
keth poi said…
Looks like ground zero of the standoff is Doka La and not Doklam plateau which is pretty far to the north. The Chinese think that the tri junction is at Gyamochem and they want to secure their position there. The electronic media has no clue. Is there a goof up on our side? Various Indian agencies seem to be unsure of the boundaries? Are they using modern tools for their intelligence?
Ravi said…
These Chinese claims rationalizations give me such a headache I cant read them Chinese just make up stuff as they go along. How come they find a 1890 agreement, imposed by the British, acceptable, but they dont find the McMahon Line acceptable? Scrap the line, draw another one where it suits us, and prepare to throw the Chinese out. Enough talk. I'm old, and have been hearing us go yak yak for 55-years already. If we dont want to fight, just accept the Chinese as our overlords and be done with it. Just - stop - yakking.
IndianACE said…
Dear Rohit,
At the onset I qualify by invoking Stephen Decatur,"My country, Right or Wrong".

Do have a look at the official Bhutan Map on their external affairs website.. http://www.mfa.gov.bt/bhutan-at-glance

Now go to gggle Earth. The prominent rectangular bend at 27 deg 20'07' N 88 deg 58'04"E, which is the south west corner of Haa District will help you to align the international boundary as accepted by Bhutan.

It is clear that the only disputed Donglang/Doklam is the one marked in red on Google Earth- rest all narrative in the Indian News for the last couple of months is our's, ie, "India's" compulsion.

Your detailed and apparently sincere effort did make one think for a few days, but then one expects you to have at least checked up with the official Bhutan maps. This article now seems as ill informed as the Indian media.

One just hopes that the incursion is some part of a secret grand international plan to pincer China, of which India is a prominent partner- else, if this is local- then, there is an international trespass which may have portents.


Par koi na, Dekh lenge ;-)
VR said…
@IndianACE:

It seems you did not read the article or this point about official Bhutanese position would not have been made. As a matter of fact, Bhutanese official documents explicitly mention the dispute about Dolam Plateau which is present scene of action. The boundary alignment dispute from along ridge line Batan La - Merug La - Senche La to Amo Chu river is the official position of the Bhutanese government.

It is part of overall Doklam Plateau dispute. And as mentioned, Chinese claim is much bigger than this plateau. If you're time and inclination, do look up the roads which Chinese have build eastward into the Haa district.

As for your coordinates, the place lies to east of Batang La-Merug La-Senche La ridge line mid-way along the slope of the mountain. Which can never be a border alignment as borders in mountains are with some exception marked along ridge-lines/watersheds.

And I consulted more than one map to arrive at the alignments given in the article.
yash virk said…
Great work and very usefull i reallly needed this article
Subha Sanjeev said…
China on Friday defended Pakistan's counter-terrorism efforts, following President Donald Trump's accusation that Islamabad harbours militants attacking US and Afghan troops.

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