Delhi’s Doklam Dilemma – Analysis 


The tri-junction between India, Bhutan, and China is an area of less than 90 sq km, and is part of the Doklam plateau, which is enveloped by Tibet’s Chumbi Valley to the north, Bhutan’s Haa Valley to the east, and India’s Sikkim state to the west. Haa is strategically important for India because the IMTRAT (Indian Military Training Teams) has its base in the Haa town.

India and China differ over where the tri-junction lies. As per Article I of the 1890 Calcutta Convention signed by the British Viceroy Lord Landsdowne and the Chinese representative in Tibet, Lt. Gov. Shang Tai, but in the absence of Tibetan and Bhutanese representatives, the tri-junction was at Mt. Gipmochi. But it is not clear whether the signatories of the 1890 Convention had surveyed the area as there was no map attached to the treaty. However, the British maps of 1907 and 1913 showed that the tri-junction was a bit north, at Batang La.

India asserts that the crest line or the ridge line that runs from the border of Nepal ends at Batang La, which is about 4 kms north of Doka La. Bhutan, also maintains the same demarcation. China claims the tri-junction is about 2.5 km south of Doka La, at Mt. Gipmochi. This stretch of 6.5 km alters the strategic stakes for India because Mt. Gipmochi and the adjoining Zompelri (Jampheri) ridge provide a commanding view of India’s Siliguri Corridor – a narrow strip of land that connects mainland India to Northeast India. It was in this area in mid-2017 when Indian troops confronted a PLA construction crew which was trying to build an illegal road from a point below Doka La to Mt. Gipmochi. This confrontation between the two militaries sparked the 73-day-long Doklam crisis. Constructing a road in the Doklam area violates Article 3 of the 1959 treaty between China and Bhutan. Moreover, an understanding was reached between Delhi and Beijing in 2012 that the tri-junction between India, China and third countries will be finalized after concurrence of the concerned countries. China’s road building spree in Doklam also violates that agreement. 

Bhutan shares a 470 km long border with China. Since 1984, Thimpu has been in talks with Beijing to reduce their disputed territory in about seven areas from 1128 sq km to 269 sq km. Bhutan even ceded some territory, Kula Kangri and Beyul, to make the Chinese accept its proposal. During the 1996 Bhutan-China talks in Beijing, China offered to swap 495 sq km in the Pasamlung and Jakarlung valleys in northern Bhutan for 269 sq km it claims in western Bhutan, of which Doklam is a part. However, in the 1998 Sino-Bhutan Treaty on Peace and Tranquility on the border, both sides pledged to maintain “the status quo of the boundary prior to March 1959.” In 2020, China revived an old claim over Sakteng in the Trashigang district of eastern Bhutan bordering Arunachal Pradesh, of which there had been no mention in 24 previous rounds of border talks between the two countries from 1984 to 1996. Beijing’s aim was to pressurize Thimpu into concluding a boundary pact quickly on China’s terms. In 2017, Bhutan had affirmed Doklam as part of Bhutanese territory and the construction of Chinese roads in the plateau being therefore illegal.

On October 14, 2021, Thimpu and Beijing agreed on an MoU with a three-step roadmap for “Expediting the China-Bhutan boundary negotiations,” finalized earlier during the 10th round of the EGM in April 2021. The MoU has not been made public, only exchanged between the two sides through diplomatic channels. Recently in an interview to ‘La Libre,’ a Belgian daily, Bhutan’s PM Lotay Tshering indicated that China and Bhutan could agree on demarcating the northern boundary in the next 1-2 meetings. China has offered this demarcation as part of a “package deal” swapping Doklam for the northern valleys. While Bhutan is clear that all talks about the tri-junction would be ‘trilateral,” India’s concerns extend to any change in the area surrounding it, so there needs to be full clarity on this issue. Resolving the border issue through a swap arrangement means China gaining strategic leverage and offensive advantage against India. The Bhutanese king may have paid a visit to Delhi in April 3-5 to clarify the position of Bhutan’s border talks with China. 

Tshering’s denial of Chinese intrusion into Doklam is of serious concern. After the PLA pulled back in late August 2017 to end the Doklam crisis, Chinese construction units soon resumed road building activities in the plateau. Chinese villages have come up on the banks of the Mochu/Torsa River. Bhutan was silent on Chinese activities in its zest to settle the border dispute. After Bhutan encouraged private enterprise to come up, the Bhutan Chamber of Commerce began pushing its government to fix the country’s northern border which is essential for engaging in direct trade with China, since the bulk of Chinese goods currently entering the Bhutanese market are transported from the Kolkata port. Doklam has little strategic value for Bhutan. Hence, it’s willingness to cede control over the plateau to China. But Bhutanese control over it is vital for India’s defense of its Northeast. Defending Doklam must therefore be a shared priority for both India and Bhutan. It is only through robust mutual cooperation that Chinese expansionism in the Himalayas can be stopped. 

The Hasimara airbase responsible for guarding the Siliguri Corridor is closer to Doklam than the two Chinese airbases in Shigatse and Lhasa. But China has been rapidly fortifying the Chumbi Valley that separates Sikkim from Bhutan, after the 2017 military stand-off.  If the Doklam Bowl falls under Chinese occupation, then the PLA will immediately militarize the plateau threatening the strong military presence that India has in Sikkim and North Bengal. Control over Doklam gives the PLA the leeway to cut off India’s North-East. Beijing would like to promote the Yadong area of the Chumbi valley which is connected to Lhasa with a highway, and will soon get an extension of the China Tibet railway from Shigatse. Beijing is eager to establish diplomatic and economic relations with the Himalayan kingdom, breaking the exclusive relationship that Bhutan has with India. This is an important strategic goal for Beijing linked to its aims of re-establishing Tibet’s geoeconomic centrality in the trans-Himalayan region, and tightening its grip over trans-Himalayan Buddhism. 

As Bhutan seems to be in quite a hurry to make a trade-off and settle the disputed northern boundary, Thimpu must be gently reminded that Bhutan had gravitated towards India because of the suppression of Buddhism in Tibet which continues till this day, that China is known for making unsubstantiated territorial claims, that India despite of its military presence in Haa since 1962 has never engaged in salami slicing of Bhutanese territory, that Delhi had willingly retro-ceded Dewangiri – an 83 sq km of land near Tamulpur in Assam’s Baksa district which was incorporated into British India through the 1865 Treaty of Sinchula – in 1951 as per the provisions of the 1949 Indo-Bhutan Treaty of Friendship, that India also amended the 1949 treaty in 2007 to respect the sensitivities of Bhutan over its sovereignty, that China has an insatiable appetite for land and it is bound to raise additional claims after taking over Doklam, and then a larger Chinese ‘presence’ in Bhutan could complicate matters for India’s IMTRAT mission leaving Bhutan vulnerable to an emerging hegemon. 

It would not be an exaggeration to state that with greater Indian investments in the Bhutanese economy, and, on better terms and scope than what China could possibly offer, Thimpu could be deterred from ceding control over Doklam. India’s willingness to support Bhutan’s next development plans by extending additional standby lines of credit, building new partnerships in space, skilling, STEM education, expediting hydropower projects and revising power tariffs upwards, constructing the Jaigaon ICP and Kokrajhar-Gelephu railway line for boosting trade, are steps in the right direction. The last British Political Officer in Sikkim, Arthur J Hopkinson, had cautioned the Indian leadership about the strategic importance of Bhutan: “India’s interest requires a friendly and contented Bhutan, within the Indian orbit of influence.” Delhi must do everything in its power to keep Bhutan that way – “friendly and contented.”

 Dr. Jyoti Prasad Das is a strategic affairs analyst from Guwahati, Assam, India.

Dr. Jyoti Prasad Das

Dr. Jyoti Prasad Das is a strategic affairs analyst from Guwahati, Assam, India.

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