SUSHANT SINGH answers key questions on the India-China standoff at the Sikkim trijunction, and pieces together a detailed situation report
From the middle of last month onward, Indian and Chinese troops are arrayed face-to-face on the Dolam plateau, close to the Indian Army post of Doka La, located between Batang La to the north and Gymochen to the south. The standoff began after the Chinese started work on extending an unmetalled track in Bhutanese territory, and were prevented by Indian troops. Bhutan and India believe the Chinese have an eye on the Jampheri ridge to the south, a feature of enormous strategic significance. China has kept up a shrill rhetoric in official briefings and state media, demanding that Indian troops back off before talks on resolving the dispute can begin.
To begin with, where exactly is the standoff happening — is it in Doka La, Doklam, Donglang or Dolam?
The location of the standoff is Dolam plateau, which is in the Doklam area (as referred to in the statements of the Ministry of External Affairs and the Embassy of Bhutan in New Delhi). The Dolam plateau is different from Doklam plateau (which is a disputed area between Bhutan and China, but has no contiguity with India). The Doklam plateau lies around 30 km to the north east of Dolam plateau. Doklam is called Donglang in Mandarin.
The Doklam or Donglang area is close to the northern end of a funnel-shaped valley, called the Chumbi Valley. The valley opens out in the Tibet region of China. At its base (in Tibet), the Chumbi ‘funnel’ is 54 km wide. At its tip, the ‘funnel’ is just 11 km wide. This is Batang La, which lies to the east of Gangtok. The Chumbi ‘funnel’ measures 70 km from its tip in the south to its base in the north.
Where then, is the ‘trijunction’?
The trijunction is the point where the borders of India (Sikkim), Bhutan and China (Tibet) meet. The trijunction is disputed — India claims it is at Batang La, while China claims it is around 6.5 km to the south, at Gymochen. Both claims are based on competing interpretations of the 1890 Calcutta Convention between Britain and China. As per the agreement between the Special Representatives of India and China in 2012, the two sides have to maintain the status quo until their competing claims are resolved in consultation with the third party, Bhutan. Gymochen is 20 km as the crow flies from the West Bengal border.
Is this also the Line of Actual Control (LAC), then?
No. Interestingly, the border between China and India in the Sikkim section is seen as ‘settled’, as the basis for alignment has been agreed between the two countries. Although work on delineating the boundary on the map and demarcating it on the ground has not even started, it is not included in the three sectors — eastern, middle and western — which are acknowledged by the two countries as disputed. The 220-km boundary in Sikkim is not the Line of Actual Control (LAC) as is the case with the rest of the 3,488 km India-China border.
So where exactly is Dolam plateau?
The ridge line running from north to south, on which Batang La and Gymochen are located, has a pass known as Doka La in between these two places (La means a mountain pass). Another mountain ridge runs east from Batang La, via Merug La and Sinche La to the Amo Chu river. It then turns southward and runs along the Amo Chu. There is a ridge line that runs east/southeast from Gymochen towards/along the Amo Chu river. This ridge is called the Jampheri ridge.
These ridge lines, rising about 500 m higher than the flat area in the centre, enclose a 89 sq km bowl, which is the Dolam plateau. A rivulet called the Torsa nala rises from the base of Doka La and zigzags through the plateau east to meet the Amo Chu river.
What is this “motorable road” that the Chinese are supposed to have built?
The main road leading into the Chumbi Valley is the Chinese state highway S-204, which winds down south from Shigatse (or Xigaze) in Tibet to a point called Yatung (or Yadong), located northeast of the Nathu La pass. From Yatung, a blacktop metalled road goes to Asam, deeper inside the Chumbi Valley. Several unmetalled tracks emanate from Asam, one of which comes up to a point close to Doka La. This 20 km long track is classified as a “Class-5 track”, meaning it is capable of taking a vehicle of load class 5, which is a jeep or a small load carrier. The track was reportedly constructed by the Chinese as early as in 2003 (though some sources claim it was completed in 2005). The statement by Bhutan called this Class-5 track a “motorable road”.
At the end of this 20 km track, is a “turning point”, a wider area where large vehicles can reverse and return. This turning point is a few metres away from the Indian Army post at Doka La, around 3.5 km short of Gymochen, and approximately 3 km from Batang La.
Do Chinese patrols visit this area?
Chinese military patrols have been regularly coming up to the turning point on the Class 5 track from Asam. Chinese graziers often come up to the Torsa nala. Chinese military patrols have also been known to go almost up to the Jampheri ridge, but this is rare. In a sense, while the de jure border is aligned with Batang La, the de facto border has been at Doka La.
What happened on the plateau in June?
On June 8, PLA soldiers came in and destroyed two self help bunkers (SHBs) on the eastern slope of the ridge, slightly north of Doka La. These SHBs technically fall in Bhutanese territory, but are needed by the Indian soldiers to cover the plateau with effective fire. The Chinese had earlier destroyed two SHBs in the same area in 2008.
On June 16, some 100 men arrived at the ‘turning point’ with 4-5 bulldozers and earthmoving machines to begin work on extending the track southward towards the Jampheri ridge. The Royal Bhutan Army has a fair weather post called Chela Post on the ridge; Indian and Bhutanese army patrols “link” on Jampheri ridge every month. Bhutan claimed in a statement that the Chinese were building a track up to its Zompelri military camp on the ridge.
As the Chinese track construction party began survey and alignment work on the Dolam plateau, Indian soldiers came down from Doka La and formed a human chain to physically prevent the Chinese from working. The Indians also moved down earthmoving machinery with an aim to undo the work to be done by the Chinese. These dozers were highlighted in the pictures that the Chinese Foreign Ministry released on June 29.
While the equipment continues to be on standby, soldiers from both sides have pitched tents in the area. After the first couple of days, the Chinese have not attempted to resume construction, and the stand-off continues. There are 300-350 Indian soldiers in the area under a Commanding Officer. The Chinese troops are from the PLA’s 6 Border Defence regiment (Unit-77649).
Can the troops continue to stay there even in winter?
Yes. Harsh as the weather is at that altitude in winter, both Indian and Chinese troops are accustomed to these conditions. The logistics supply lines and turnover of men is also not a problem because the deployment is only a short distance away from the Indian positions at Doka La.
But why is India so insistent on stopping the road construction?
As acknowledged by New Delhi, Indian troops are technically in Bhutanese territory to prevent the Chinese from extending the Class-5 track up to Jampheri. While Indian insistence on stopping the track construction is in line with its claims on the location of the trijunction, the main reason for taking a strong stance is the military importance of the Jampheri ridge. The MEA noted this in its statement when it said that “such construction would represent a significant change of status quo with serious security implications for India”.
While access to the Jampheri ridge will reduce China’s distance to the “chicken’s neck” in the Siliguri Corridor to around 50 km, that would still not bring it within artillery range. But there are other security implications for the Indian defensive deployment in the area, if the Chinese track reaches Jampheri. The Indian and Bhutanese demand, therefore, is for restoration of the pre-June 16 situation in the area. But China insists that India should withdraw its troops from the area before any talks can take place.
Can the conflict escalate?
Diplomatic engagement can open a way, but a solution that allows both sides to ‘save face’ is not immediately visible. The Chinese have ratcheted up rhetoric through official statements and in state-run media, and the space for a honourable disengagement appears to be shrinking. Though undesirable, an escalation of the conflict remains a possibility. However, the engagement between the two countries during the visit of the Indian National Security Advisor (who is also the Special Representative for talks with China) to Beijing later this month will provide a better answer.