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.
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 gotten involved because development in this area has serious security ramifications for India.
However, none of the reports barring one gives correct information about the geographical region where this stand-off has taken place and the 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 the present stand-off is taking place, and why India is reacting much more strongly – to the extent of helping to keep the China’s People's Liberation Army (PLA) out of Bhutanese territory.
Story so far – Confusion!
When the news story broke, it spoke about the Chinese removing Indian Army bunkers in Tri-Junction Area after the Indian Army prevented the Chinese from undertaking road construction activity. These reports mentioned certain key areas like the tri-junction, Dhoka La and Doklam Plateau.
This caused confusion because if you look at the map on 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 the tri-junction is about 30 kilometres as the crow flies while Dhoka La is about 5 kilometres south of boundary tri-junction.
So, a question arises – if the Chinese were building a road in the Doklam plateau on the China-Bhutan border, how did the Indian Army stop their work? And how does the boundary tri-junction area and Dhoka La come into the picture?
Bhutan-China border dispute
As per the Royal Government of Bhutan (RGOB), there are four areas of boundary-alignment dispute between China and Bhutan. However, as per the Chinese, there are seven such areas of boundary dispute. It is this mismatch in the 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 the King of Bhutan in the National Assembly, there are four areas under dispute:
1. 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)
2. 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.
3. 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
4. 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 the area marked as Doklam plateau on Google Earth and shows as disputed with a broken line. As per the RGOB, there is no contiguity between areas covered under points (1) and (2) while Chinese claim an intermediate area as well. This makes the Chinese claims much larger than the Bhutanese interpretation and the root cause of the present conflict.
I’ve not been able to access any corresponding maps from the RGOB which show the alignment of the above area. As 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 seven disputed areas as per them. Please see the map below:
Areas with red and blue line indicate disputed areas as per the Chinese. The blue line indicates border alignment as per RGOB while the red line indicates the alignment of Bhutanese boundary as per the Chinese.
The disputed area in the west is the centre of the 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, the Chinese claim is much larger than what the RGOB considers. The details of the three disputed areas in this region are as follows:
1. The mountain ridge from Batang La to Merukla/Merugla upto Sinchela
2. The mountain ridge from Sinchela to River Amo; along River Amo, from River Amo to its confluence with River Langmarpo;
3. 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;
(Source: Bhutan News Service)
If you look at the RGOB and Chinese interpretation of the boundary dispute, you realise that point (1) in both the interpretations of boundary alignment is the 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 being part of Tibet. From the Bhutanese perspective, point (3) in the Chinese claim is the 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.
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, the Chinese claim line lies along the ridge to the west of the 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:
1. 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 real estate to the PLA to station troops and provisions. Further, this puts them at a disadvantage vis-a-vis the Indian position on the ridges to the west along the Sikkim-Tibet border.
2. The present main access route into Chumbi Valley and Yadong is S-204. Given the depth of the Chumbi Valley and its alignment, it is susceptible to Indian interdiction. The Chinese can consider developing a loop in S-204, which is further east and passes through the claimed area. This will give it a relatively better protection against Indian fire assault.
3. The most important gain is towards the south part – opens up the restricted funnel of Chumbi Valley and brings it that much closer to the Indian Siliguri corridor. The Indian area in the 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:
1. Mountain ridge from Batang La to Merukla/Merugla upto Sinchela
2. 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 the alignment:
In case Chinese assertions are expected, then the India-China-Bhutan boundary will be at Gymochen. And Dokal La, which is presently on the border between India (Sikkim) and Bhutan, will become a pass on the 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 the Chinese have extended tracks from the Merug La-Sinche La ridge line onto the Doklam plateau and have over the years slowly creeped forward claiming and controlling a larger part of the plateau.
The map below shows various roads/tracks in the region:
What seems to be happening is that the Chinese are trying to further expand their hold on the plateau. From the available news, it seems that the 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 a security threat to India. Working in tandem with RBA, the 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 the Chinese control the Doklam plateau. It 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 the ridge-line going east from Gymochen towards the Amo-Chu river, they control a dominating ridge-line which overlooks the Indian territory across Bhutan.
The map below gives the distance from this ridge-line towards the location in Sikkim (a major communication axis) and a location in West Bengal.