Author : Manoj Joshi

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Dec 04, 2020
Lost victory in Doklam

Recent reports that the Chinese have constructed a village in Bhutanese territory in Doklam and are building a road down the Mochu river have caused consternation. But nothing they have done has been a secret. Look at the Google Earth imagery of eastern Doklam of December 2019 vintage and you will see the village foundations on the banks of the Mochu river and a road going further south, towards India, along the west bank of the river.

When India and China agreed to disengage in Doklam on 28 August 2017, most Indian analysts immediately declared that this had been a diplomatic victory for India. Retired Brigadier Anil Gupta, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson, said that “the Chinese have submitted to India’s will.” He said that if reports confirming the Chinese abandonment of road construction were true, “then it is a major strategic victory for India.”

Writing in the pro-government website, Arihant Pawariya declared that by blocking Chinese road construction, “Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, have secured a massive diplomatic and psychological victory.” Another analyst, Abhijit Iyer-Mitra declared that the standoff resolution was, “India’s greatest diplomatic victory in decades.”

There was more sober commentary from people like former secretary Kanwal Sibal who was content to say that the development was a “diplomatic success,” and he urged India not to “humiliate” China. And even while many mainstream commentators expressed satisfaction at the diplomatic resolution of the issue, there was a sense of victory in their tone.

The official statement after the decision to withdraw was “crafted with excruciating minimalisation that Ministry of External Affairs official spend years in mastering,” noted Australian analyst, Rory Medcalf. The Chinese official comment acknowledged the Indian withdrawal, but obfuscated the Chinese actions. On the one hand, said its spokesperson, Hua Chunying, the Chinese would “continue with their patrols and stationing in the Dong Lang (Doklam) area, yet, in an elliptical manner she added that in light of the changed situation, “China will make necessary adjustments and deployments as it sees fit.”

Another well-known scholar, M Taylor Fravel questioned the “emerging consensus that India ‘won’ and China ‘lost’”. He said that the fact that the Indians withdrew first and that Chinese would continue to patrol Doklam as they did in the past, and maintain the new road they had built, indicated that claims of victory were, indeed, premature. The  Washington Post, too, noted that while, “it appeared as though Beijing, not New Delhi had blinked,” they did say that “some experts said it was premature to start declaring victory.”

Fravel’s explanation for the Chinese de-escalating was credible. He says the upcoming Xiamen BRICS summit in early September and the important 19th Communist Party Congress, persuaded the Chinese not to escalate. India may have won at the tactical level but lost at the strategic, he said.

This became evident very soon. While they did not push the project of extending their road from below Doka La to the Zompelri ridge that had been blocked by Indian soldiers, almost immediately, they began a systematic build up in Doklam that has consolidated their position on the plateau claimed by Bhutan. In 2017 itself, it became apparent that in the area from Sinche La—over which the road from Chumbi Valley runs—down to Doka La, military installations and helipads had come up.

A Chinese map detailing Chinese claims in western Bhutan.

While Fravel has provided one explanation for the termination of the Doklam stand-off in the way that it did, there is the simple possibility that the PLA simply lacked the military ability to push the Indians out at that point. Writing in the South China Morning Post four months later, Senior Colonel Zhou Bo—an honorary fellow with the PLA Academy of Military Science and a familiar figure in the international circuit, attending seminars, forums and workshops and mounting a strong defence of the Chinese positions on a range of issues—maintained  that the Doklam outcome, “was not even a tactical victory for India” because the Chinese have continued to remain there and have resumed road construction activity. But, perhaps, the most important part of Zhou’s article was his declaration that India was going to be the net loser now because “the disputed border was not on China’s strategic radar” but now, the Doklam standoff has “provided China with a lesson on reconsidering its security concerns.” As a result, China would enhance its infrastructure construction, impliedly along the entire Line of Actual Control with India.

This began to happen faster than expected. In Doklam itself, the Chinese let their road remain unfinished, but began construction of new military facilities there. Colonel Vinayak Bhatt, a retired Army satellite imagery analyst, determined that as of December 2017 itself, far from thinning down, as claimed by Indian government officials, the PLA had fortified its position in northern Doklam by creating shelters, as many as seven helipads, munition storage sites, missile dumps, a radar station, stationed armoured vehicles and has laid fiber optic cables for communications. In short, they have occupied all of northern Doklam.

A fascinating signal  to this effect was sent within days of the end of the Party Congress on October 29, one of the first news items put out by Xinhua, was the one which declared that Xi had encouraged Tibetan herders to safeguard national territory. His remarks were in response to a letter by two Tibetan girls during the Party Congress, detailing their experiences in the border areas. So Xi thanked them for their loyalty and the contribution they were making in safeguarding China’s territory. This was a signal, as clear as any, that the Sino-Indian and the Sino-Bhutan borders would become  an important focus of the Chinese military in the coming period.

Having consolidated themselves in the northern half of the plateau and having been foiled from going to the south, they took recourse to a longer strategy. They began constructing roads on their side of the Torsa Nallah, with one moving south, which could presumably bridge the Nallah and then come up to towards the Zompelri (Jampheri) ridge. It soon became clear that the Chinese intended to occupy the entire disputed area.

Their more recent step has been to move along their claim line on the west bank of the Mochu river and build an entire village and a road along the Mochu (Amo Chu) river which forms the eastern part of Doklam. The pictures of this village, named Pangda, were tweeted by a Chinese journalist, Shen Shiwei, in November 2020. But Google Earth imagery, date-stamped December 2019, indicated that the work in the region had begun earlier. From the village the Chinese have built a road along the river going south towards India. So far, 10-15 kms has been built, and it will not be surprising if it develops lateral branches going west and also reach the Zompelri (Jampheri) ridge from a direction which is difficult for India to interdict.

As for the hapless Bhutanese, they are unable to do anything in front of this juggernaut. When asked about this development, the Bhutanese Ambassador to India, Maj-Gen (retd) V Namgyel declared that, “There is no Chinese village on Bhutanese territory.” Experts, however, said it was at least 2.5 kms into Bhutanese territory and the road goes along the Mochu for another 10-15 kms towards India.

The ultimate slap on Bhutan’s face was the June 2020 expansion of the Chinese claims over Bhutan, by bringing to the fore, one claim that had not figured in any of the 24 rounds of Bhutan-China border talks till now. This was to a huge area in eastern Bhutan and this claim was made by opposing a funding proposal to develop the Sakteng wildlife sanctuary because, they said, this area was disputed.  After Bhutan sent a demarche to Beijing on the issue, the official Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said in July 2020 that “the boundary between China and Bhutan is yet to be demarcated, and the middle, eastern and western section of the border are disputed.” Significantly, this area is south of the Tawang tract, which China has been saying is the irreducible minimum for any border settlement with India.

The Chinese action in unilaterally making the Mochu river the border and occupying all of Doklam goes against the 1890 Anglo Chinese Convention that China invoked in 2017. This clearly said that the border would be at “the crest of the mountain range separating waters flowing into the Sikkim Teesta from the waters flowing into the Tibetan Mochu.” But today, the Chinese are not on the watershed, but at the very banks of Mochu. Further, all this is in violation of their own solemn commitment in 1998 that during the period the two sides are trying to work out a border settlement, “the status quo of the boundary prior to March 1959 be upheld.” One thing you have to hand to the Chinese, they don’t hesitate to bully countries, big or small.

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Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF. He has been a journalist specialising on national and international politics and is a commentator and ...

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