A simple comparison between number of troops actively deployed or dedicated to the Sino-Indian border by India and China will show that India has disproportionate advantage. Sure, China or People Liberation Army (PLA) can and will bring in troops based outside of Tibet but the same will take time, the fantastic infrastructure built by the Chinese not-withstanding.
And then, there is this small inconvenient issue of acclimatization of troops to fight in such high altitude areas. The average elevation of Tibetan Plateau is 4,500 meters (14,800 feet) and it rises further along the Sino-Indian boundary or McMahon Line where the Himalayan watershed divided India from Tibetan plateau. In comparison, major PLA formations tasked against India – and which will comes from outside Tibet – are based in cities at less than half or even 1/7th of this elevation.
However, if you read articles about China, its military capability and what it can do vis-à-vis India, you see an awe of China. Barring a few exceptions, most analysts and foreign policy wonks suffer from what I call as ‘7 feet Chinaman Syndrome’. And this has reflected in our foreign policy as well.
A perfect example of this outlook is captured in this article by Nirupama Rao, former foreign secretary and ambassador to China and the US. A major takeaway from the article is that adjustment is passed off as pragmatism and this pragmatism has been displayed only by one party, India.
As similar series of articles came out thick and fast when India and China squared-off in Dolam/Doklam Plateau few months back. By the way, the name of the plateau where the stand-off took-place is Dolam Plateau. Doklam Plateau represents a wider area of dispute between China and Bhutan and encompasses the Dolam Plateau.
You can read about the Doklam stand-off with details of the geography, land dispute between Bhutan and China, and India’s position in this article by me.
However, what became obvious is that these articles were only part driven by ‘7 feet Chinaman Syndrome’. The other driving force was to somehow show the Narendra Modi government in poor light in terms of its handling of the situation from foreign policy and defense perspective. In fact, there was a subtle attempt to use the arguments basis the ‘7 feet Chinaman Syndrome’ to push the narrative that this might not end-well for India.
Finally, when the stand-off was resolved on the expected lines – expected by those who knew that China had pushed itself into the corner – there was another insidious attempt to parse the statements by Indian and China to show that India had somehow capitulated. And that India had agreed to a compromise much short of what it had set out to achieve.
(A) Status Quo versus Status Quo Ante
Over last few days, there have been couple of reports which again intend to portray that things have not settled on the ground. And that situation is contrary to as explained by the Indian Foreign Ministry.
It is my opinion that information is being used selectively with aim to sensationalize and without putting the geographical parameters in context.
Before we look at these reports, here is recap of the geography of the area and what transpired, and why, leading to stand-off.
(1) Chumbi Valley
The word Chumbi Valley has figured almost in the same frequency as Doklam Plateau ever since the stand-off between China and India started.
But what and where is Chumbi Valley?
To quote Charles Allen from his famous book ‘Duel in the Snows – The True Story of Younghusband Mission to Lhasa’ :
‘Only at one place is this mountain rampart vulnerable (mountain rampart is the Great Himalayan Range which separates Tibetan Plateau from India): immediately to the west of Mount Chumolhari (also known as Mount Jomolhari), where the line of Tibetan frontier dips to the south in sharp V.
Here the border follows the crest of two ridges radiating south-east and south-west from the Central Himalayan Range to form a triangle of land, wedge known to the Tibetans as Dromo and to Indians as the Chumbi Valley.
It can be entered from neighboring Sikkim and Bhutan by way of a number of passes, one of which is the 14,300 foot crossing point known as the Jelep La, the Lovely Level Pass’.
The Chumbi Village is north-east of Yadong or Yatung. Both Yadong and the Chumbi Village can be seen on the attached map. Historically, Yatung was a trading mart which saw trade between Indian, Bhutanese and Tibetan traders. Present day Yadong is the capital of the Yadong County and center of large development activity. China intends to connect it with Lhasa through a railway line.
Three small rivers from east to west, namely Dromo Chu, Khangbuma Chu and Tungkarpu Chu (word Chu means flowing water, a river) confluence at Yadong and continue onward as Amo Chu. Each river runs through a steep and narrow valley.
The eastern most valley along Dromo Chu (marked in blue in the map) is the actual Chumbi Valley. Yadong sits at the mouth (end) of the Chumbi Valley. However, the entire Tibetan area between Sikkim and Bhutan is generally referred to as the Chumbi Valley. It has become a reference name for this entire wedge shaped strategic territory.
When the British marched onto Lhasa across the Himalayas in December 1903, they went from Jelep La, across Chumbi Valley to Phari Dzong and then onto Lhasa.
(2) The Dolam Plateau
As for Dolam Plateau, it lies in Bhutan, at the end of wedge shaped Tibetan land which separates Sikkim in west from Bhutan in east. It is also the location of tri-junction of Indian (Sikkim), Tibetan and Bhutan boundary in the area.
By the way, all the news reports till recently have spoken of the area as Doklam Plateau (even I used this name in my earlier post detailing the area). However, it transpires that the name of the area is Dolam Plateau.
Doklam is a larger area and from Chin-Bhutan boundary perspective, refers to the entire stretch of land in west under dispute. As I’ve explained in my earlier posts, Chinese have a much larger claim in the area.
Refer to the post here: https://theperspective.co.in/doklam-plateau-india-bhutan-and-china-stand-off/
The map below shows the location of the plateau in context to Yadong and Chumbi Village and highlights important landmarks on the plateau. What becomes obvious from the map below is that Dolam Plateau is at a much higher elevation as compared the Chumbi Valley.
You can see road snaking their way up from the Chumbi Village towards the Sino-Indian boundary. But there is no flat area along the border. Dolam Plateau affords the Chinese a relatively large flat area on the boundary.
- Batang La – As per India and Bhutan, tri-junction of India, Bhutan and China.
- Gymochen – Tri-junction as per China
- Doka La – Pass on India and Bhutan boundary on the plateau. Indian troops are to west of this pass. They maintain observation over Chinese activity on the plateau from this area.
- Senche La and Merug La – Passes on eastern ridge-line of the plateau. As per the Bhutanese, Chinese territory or Chumbi Valley is to east of the line Merug La-Sinche La. Basically, Chinese have no business being on the plateau.
- Torsa Nala – Runs through the middle of the plateau and drains into the Amo Chu river below.
(3) Why do the Chinese want Dolam Plateau?
Simple. In mountain warfare, he who controls the heights, controls the outcome. Chinese are geographically disadvantaged when it comes to Chumbi Valley. This disadvantage manifests itself in two ways:
- The valley is very narrow. It is a V-shaped valley and flat area available in the valley floor is very less.
- The surrounding mountain ridges are very steep. Men and material have to be pushed along very steep angle and this creates serious issues. Also, there is no real estate available along the slopes to position large body of men or material.
Dolam plateau is unique because it is an elevated piece of land which is large enough to hold both men and material in large quantity. Further, its position is such that it allows the Chinese to threaten Indian Army defenses along Sikkim boundary and bring Siliguri Corridor (also called as Chicken’s Neck) under observation.
For comparison, the valley floor from where the road moves up the mountain side to Sinche La pass is at ~2,600 meters. While the Sinche La pass itself is at ~4,200 meters.
Series of Google Earth satellite images pasted below show the profile of the Chumbi Valley and Dolam Plateau.
- Road leading from Sinche La towards Merug La
- Ridge-1 and Ridge-2 on the plateau can be seen.
- Technically, the Merug La-Sinche La ridge-line is the boundary between Bhutan and China.
- And Chinese territory is to east of this line.
- This shows that basically, Chinese have literally no space available on the plateau to position large body of troops.
- Entire Dolam Plateau with important features.
- The V-shaped depression in the middle is the Torsa Nala.
- If Gymochen is accepted as tri-junction, then entire area: Sinche La-Merug La-Batang La-Doka La-Gymochen and Jhampheri Ridge comes under Chinese control.
- A track going from Ridge-2 to Doka La is visible.
- The stand-off happened in area between these two points as the Chinese tried to extend the track going towards Doka La to Jhampheri Ridge.
- View from Indian side. Ridge-2, Doka La and Jhampheri Ridge are visible.
- Road was to come from Ridge-2 towards Jhampheri Ridge.
- Gymochen, the claimed tri-junction point is also visible.
- If tri-junction moves to Gymochen, the whole area opposite Doka La will be under Chinese control.
- View from Jhampheri Ridge – the plain area visible is India in states of West Bengal and Sikkim.
Few important points:
- Yadong – One can make out the narrow nature of the valley. And the area being surrounded by steep mountain ridges.
- Sinche La – Road leading up to Sinche La from the valley; large number of loops required to gain height and reach the pass shows the steepness of the area.
- Track leads from Sinche La to Merug La – From Merug La, the roads connects with other Chinese positions opposite Sikkim-Tibet border. The Sinche La-Merug La road is under 800 meters from the Merug La – Sinche La ridge line
- From Sinche La, a track passes through/along Ridge-1 and Ridge-2 towards Doka La on Bhutan-India boundary. Indian troops from this area had intervened to stop the road construction activity.
- Chinese were building a road from vicinity of the Doka La towards Jhampheri ridge.
- View from Jhampheri ridge – Indian states of West Bengal and Sikkim are visible. The Bhutan Army camp below Ridge 2 is also visible.
- Gymochen – the claimed boundary tri-junction point by the Chinese is also visible. As its location shows, if the tri-junction is at Gymochen, then the Dolam Plateau comes under the control of the Chinese.
(the nomenclature, Ridge-1 and Ridge-2, has been taken from a recent India Today report)
The map below summarizes the positions and features on the plateau:
(B) Why did India do, what it did?
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.
Further, India also does not have depth behind its position on Doka La. There is a valley behind this feature. Indian positions on Doka La are part of the larger interlinked defensive complex in the area which extends to Jelep La, Nathu La and beyond.
The satellite image below shows the valley behind Doka La and its relative position vis-a-vis Sino-Indian boundary on Batang La-Jelp La-Nathu La ridge-line.
If the Chinese control the plateau, they can outflank Indian defenses on the the Sino-Indian border. Not only will the Chinese than attack coming up from the Chumbi Valley but also attack north/north-west from the plateau on the flank of Indian positions along the boundary and towards their rear areas.
The map below gives distance from this ridge-line towards location in Sikkim (a major communication axis) and a location in West Bengal. Long range artillery guns placed on the plateau can target both – Indian troops movement in the plains or rear areas of Sikkim and Indian defenses along the Sino-Indian boundary along the Chumbi Valley.
(C) All is not well?
When the news about the diplomatic settlement of the stand-off emerged, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs issues the following statement:
“We had, earlier in the day, announced that following diplomatic communications, expeditious disengagement of border personnel of India and China at the face-off site at Doklam was ongoing. This process has since been almost completed under verification”
The above statement needs to be seen in context of the nature of the dispute. We can summarize the same as such:
- India had objected to construction of a road from the existing track towards the Jhampheri Ridge as it has serious security implications for India.
- To prevent this activity, Indian Army took the unprecedented step of crossing over into Bhutanese territory and interjected on behalf of the Royal Bhutan Army.
- The settlement called for Chinese to stop road construction activity and withdrawal of construction equipment and associated manpower.
By all accounts, the above was achieved and hence, the disengagement happened.
However, there remains a grey area – That is, has India asked for complete withdrawal of additional troops on the plateau (which China would’ve brought during the stand-off) to the same level as before the build-up?
In my opinion, India – and Bhutan – will object to larger presence of Chinese troops on the plateau if China makes any attempt to permanently base them on the plateau. This is because at present, Chinese do not have the infrastructure to support a large body of troops on the plateau. It is one thing to maintain increased number of troops during the surge in temporary shelters. And quite another to sustain them in the harsh winters when the area is covered in thick blanket of snow and temperature drops to below zero degree Celsius.
Maintaining them during the winter months will require permanent structures which can provide protection from the elements. Another important aspect is the logistic support; the main access road which comes from the Chumbi Valley towards the Senche La pass will be covered in snow.
As per media reports, the Merug La – Senche La ridge line is already covered in snow. Chinese will have to either keep the road open during the entire winter period – which is a tall order, or undertake advanced winter stocking. Something which the Indian Army does for its forward posts which are cut-off in the in the winter. The Chinese garrison on the plateau will have to be provided with infrastructure and everything else they need to spend 4-5 months of harsh winter in the area.
Let us also remember that the very presence of Chinese troops in large numbers on the plateau will violate the status quo agreement between China and Bhutan with respect to this piece of territory. As of now, both the parties patrol the plateau. Bhutan also maintains few troops on the plateau for the purpose but which it seems withdraw during the winter months.
Bhutan would not have objected to the heightened number of troops during the stand-off but the same cannot be the new normal after the resolution. Because if this be the case then for all practical purposes, Bhutan would’ve lost control of the plateau.
Again, something which neither Bhutan nor India would agree to.
Chinese have only a sliver of land on the plateau along the Meru La-Senche La ridge-line. And this land cannot hold beyond a company worth of troops.
(D) So, where do we stand?
- It is my considered opinion that the road construction activity which had triggered the stand-off has ceased and hence, the resolution came about.
- Chinese will be smarting from this loss of face – they did a horrendous miscalculation – and will try to test the tripwire as far as India and Bhutan are concerned.
- For example, can they get away with larger body of troops based on the plateau? This would be a departure from the past where they only patrolled the plateau with lesser number of troops. It will represent more physical assertion of control. And to achieve this, Chinese will have to build permanent and more enhanced infrastructure. The very act of not objecting to Chinese infrastructure work will be considered a tactic acceptance of their objective of maintaining larger number of troops.
- Can they work on improving existing track on the plateau? Remember, tracks coming from Senche La towards Doka La have existed from at least 2005 (as seen on historic Google Earth satellite imagery). Will work towards improvement of this older track evoke response from Bhutan or India?
As explained earlier, India and Bhutan cannot allow larger Chinese presence on the plateau and associated infrastructure development.
Whether this point becomes another flash-point will depend on what the Chinese do during the winter month. If the Chinese withdraw, then all is good. If they stay, and for that they’ll have to improve infrastructure, then we’re in store for more fireworks.
However, what is most likely to happen is that Chinese will withdraw after lingering in the area a bit longer. But will come back during the next summer season. When they do this time, they would’ve worked out the contingencies in advance. This time, they were caught off-guard because they’d not gamed Indian response. Next time, they will factor in the same and prepare themselves for putting pressure at some other point(s) on the Sino-Indian border.
Long story short, this is not the last we’ve heard of Dolam Plateau.
(E) What is the media saying?
Lets look at some of the reports which have come out over past few days and check them for amount of truth in them.
(1) India Today article
This is fairly balanced piece which factually describes the situation and gives an impression of the overall military scenario in the Chumbi Valley sector. Describes the motive(s) behind heightened troops presence on the plateau, even after the disengagement.
It says that about 300 troops are still in the area, living in the temporary shelters they’d built during the stand-off. It says that it remains to be seen if the Chinese troops stay on the plateau and that Indian Army is keeping a close watch on the ground situation.
Another important data-point from the report is that India has conveyed to the Chinese that the expected Status Quo Ante is the situation as it existed before the stand-off – No presence of large number of troops on the plateau. And that the Chinese troops have to be located behind the Merug La – Sinche La ridge-line.
(2) NDTV – Well, the NDTV report mixes up many things
For example, it carries the following two statements:
Barely a month after the winding down of an aggressive stand-off with India at the Sikkim border, the Chinese army is back to building a road on the Doklam Plateau, just 10 km from the location of the last conflict. The Doklam Plateau is claimed by both Beijing and Bhutan as their territory. India backs Bhutan’s claim
Now, barely 10 kilometres from the location of the stand-off, China is expanding an existing track, reinforcing its claim to the disputed and remote Doklam Plateau. India backs Bhutan’s claim to the region and has made it clear that it will not tolerate any infrastructure that would allow China access to the Chicken’s Neck, located just south of Doklam.
Now, the whole of the plateau, from Sinche La towards east to Doka La towards west, is about 5 kms in width. The stand-off happened at a place close to Ridge-2. Road building activity 10 kms from the the stand-off site means a locality which is situated WITHIN the Chumbi Valley or more precisely, Chinese territory. And far away from the Dolam Plateau. Chinese are sure free to do what they want to within their territory.
However, the satellite imagery used in the said report shows the stand-off site on the Dolam Plateau.
The same report also makes this statement:
Thwarted in its last attempt, China has now shifted its unused road construction material North and East of the face-off site. Road construction workers brought into the area are accompanied by up to 500 soldiers though there are no indicators that these soldiers will be permanently based in the area
If the above part is correct i.e. the Chinese are indeed working on expanding existing road on the plateau itself that the earlier part of the report cannot be correct. Also, we don’t know how much north is north and how much east is east?
As it is, track widening of track towards east means work is happening, if the report is correct, on the existing track from Senche La towards Ridge-2. North of the stand-off site can mean widening of track going from Senche La towards the tri-junction at Batang La.
While both of the above will be a point of concern to the Indian Army – any infrastructure enhancement will be of concern to the army – it is unlikely to become a flash-point immediately.
What the report does say is that there seem to be no work happening to permanently base the 500 odd Chinese troops and construction parties on the plateau itself.
(3) Indian Express – Indian Express carried a report titled “About-1000 Chinese troops still near Doklam-standoff-area”
The main thrust of the report is as under:
More than five weeks after India and China stepped back from a standoff at Doklam on the Sikkim border, Indian soldiers remain on high alert with around 1,000 Chinese troops still present on the plateau, a few hundred metres from the faceoff site, government sources told The Indian Express.
The presence of the People’s Liberation Army has thinned in the area after the process of “disengagement” began on August 28, but one PLA battalion remains on the plateau, said sources. The battalion is located approximately 800m from the faceoff site, sources said.
This is on the same line as the NDTV Report (same source?) but the number of troops in the Indian Express report are double the number (500) mentioned in the NDTV report.
Then it makes the following claim:
The presence of Chinese soldiers in Chumbi Valley, where the plateau is located, was also acknowledged by Air Chief Marshal B S Dhanoa during his annual press conference on Thursday.
First, to say that Dolam Plateau is situated in the Chumbi Valley is factually incorrect. It is located outside of the Valley. Second, while the Chief did mention about troop presence in Chumbi Valley, he did not refer to presence of troops on the plateau. Chumbi Valley is pretty long and additional Chinese troops could be anywhere in the valley.
What the Air Chief said can be gleaned from a different NDTV Report:
“The two sides are not in a physical face off as we speak, in face to face contact. However, their (Chinese) forces in Chumbi valley are still deployed,” Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa said. “I expect the forces to withdraw in the future as their exercises in that area get over,”
In fact, the India Today report linked above mentions presence of Chinese troops including armor in an area north of North Sikkim for an extended period after having completed their maneuvers (which I think means exercise).
Or as the this very Indian Express report says:
The Indian Express had reported on September 25 that a Chinese division of more than 12,000 soldiers, 150 tanks and artillery guns was moved opposite Sikkim at Phari Dzong in Chumbi Valley during the standoff. Sources confirmed the continued presence of PLA in the area but expect the deployment to be reduced by two-thirds to brigade-level in the coming weeks.
What is obvious is that ACM Dhanoa wasn’t talking about troops on the plateau itself.
The Indian Express report tries to play-up the presence of Chinese troops on the plateau as some sort of evidence against the ‘disengagement’ statement made by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). And that “all is not well”.
But this argument is clutching at the straws. Simply because the main and first objective was to get the Chinese to stop making a new road towards the Jhampheri Ridge and the same was achieved. Both sides stepped back from the stand-off site and that is what ‘disengagement’ meant.
Now comes the question of presence of additional troops (300?500?1,000?) on the plateau. As the India Today story reports, Indian Army has already conveyed to the Chinese that additional troops present on the plateau need to go behind the Senche La-Merug La line. Because as explained earlier, the mere presence of these troops on permanent basis on the plateau constitutes acceptance of Chinese control of the plateau. Something which India can simply not allow to happen.
But this heightened number of troops on the plateau is an evolving situation. India can conveyed that it is a red-line and what remains to be seen is how the Chinese behave, especially with the winter setting-in on the plateau and in the region.
Any development that happens on the plateau – widening of existing tracks, larger number of troops on the plateau west of Sinche La-Merug La line, permanent structure for troops and stores etc. – represents a new challenge in this volatile area. And is likely to be tackled as it evolves.
Please share your feedback and comments. And do point out mistakes.