China is Nudging Its Way into South Doklam

A file photo of the India-China border at Nathu La, Sikkim. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

New Chinese road construction in territory claimed by Bhutan has left south Doklam more vulnerable, according to a satellite imagery analysis.

Writing in ThePrint, former army intelligence officer Colonel Vinayak Bhat argues that ‘China has worked through the winter to bypass India’s aggressive blockade at Doklam, making a new road that can give its troops access to the southern part of the plateau’.

The new road could make it easier for Chinese troops to reach the strategically crucial Jampheri Ridge. India had sent its troops to halt Chinese road construction last June, in order to prevent them from reaching that high ground. The 72-day standoff that followed only ended after the two sides found a face-saving solution that changed little on the ground.

As this blog has noted over the last six months, the PLA and Chinese border troops have continued to consolidate their presence in north Doklam. In January, Bhat published satellite images in ThePrint that showed ‘concrete posts, seven helipads, new trenches and several dozen armoured vehicles,’ in the area.

According to Bhat’s latest analysis, the Chinese have taken advantage of a mild winter and built roads along the reverse slopes of mountains, obscuring them from Indian and Bhutanese troops.

‘Images show that in January, China constructed approximately a kilometre of road. However, in February, almost 5 km have been constructed southwards from a point where the Chinese have constructed three new helipads,’ Bhat writes.

The sound of silence

Building roads on reverse slopes has some military advantages. In the right circumstances they could allow Chinese men and material to move without being seen. Mountains would also provide cover from direct-fire weapons. However, we can be sure the PLA does not expect to hide road construction activity from India. Bhat’s former colleagues in the army are undoubtedly tracking Chinese moves in Doklam using the same methods.

‘The suggestion that China has built a fresh road to Jampheri ridge, without our knowledge, is completely misleading. The Chinese haven’t made anything new in the past month. We are keeping the full area under surveillance through visual and technical means,’ an anonymous ‘official source’ told The Indian Express in reaction to Bhat’s analysis.

Ever since the standoff ended in August, the government has tended to downplay reports of a Chinese build-up in the Doklam area. The Indian Express cited anonymous sources as dismissing the new construction as mere tracks of the sort the Chinese have paved before.

‘Our Red Lines are very clear: Jampheri Ridge and Torsa nalla. We stopped the Chinese last summer when they tried to proceed south of Torsa nalla, from the parking area. None of their laterals constructed post-Doklam cross the Torsa nalla,’ the story quoted ‘sources’ as saying.

This is not very convincing. The road construction that the Indian Army intercepted last June did not cross the Jampheri Ridge either, but it did pose a threat to that important patch of high ground. The new ‘tracks’ the Chinese are building appear to pose a similar threat.

Thimphu has also remained silent. Neither the Bhutanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs nor the Royal Bhutan Army have said or done anything about China’s actions. (Though to be fair, we must admit the Bhutanese were similarly circumspect through much of the Doklam crisis.)

The chessboard

News of China’s road-building in the Doklam area comes even as India attempts to repair relations with Beijing, going so far as to discourage the Tibetan exile community from organising an event in Delhi. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a believer in personal diplomacy, seems to be betting a great deal on the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in June.

India is also separately working on its relations with Bhutan. The Doklam standoff revealed a clear divergence of interests between the two countries, with Bhutan apparently willing to cede the area to China in exchange for territory in the north.

The Doklam crisis has given Bhutan’s government more leverage over an India eager to woo it back into its fold. In October, then foreign secretary, S. Jaishankar visited Thimphu. The following month, Bhutan’s royal family visited India and in February, Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay came calling, his trip coinciding with an Indian agreement to pay higher tariffs for power from a hydroelectric plant in Bhutan.

Modi is expected to visit Bhutan later this year as part of celebrations marking 50 years of formal diplomatic relations between the two countries. Meanwhile, with the Chinese continuing to probe into south Doklam, national security advisor Ajit Doval made a discreet visit to Thimphu last month. If India is to effectively counter China in Doklam, it will need to combine such quiet diplomacy with the deployment of unarmed troops to tactically important spots in the trijunction area.

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