Doklam Standoff: China’s Border Provocation in India and Bhutan

 By Anushree Dutta

India and China are currently engaged in aface-off in a tri-junction between China, India and Bhutan in Doklam, Sikkim. The cause of the face-off was that Indian troops opposed the construction of road by the Chinese in the Doklam plateau. This road is a cause of concern for India. If completed, it will shorten the distance for the Chinese army towards India’s strategically vulnerable ‘Chicken Neck’ area – the Siliguri Corridor.[1] However, the Chinese view this objection by the Indian Army as India’s “betrayal” of the stance taken by successive Indian governments; for which they demand India’s withdraw from the region.[2]

Doklam is a strategically located area along the borders between India, China and Bhutan and is considered an area of critical importance to all three countries in respect to their national security. In other words, the Doklam plateau is an area where the boundaries of Bhutan, India and China meet. Bhutan believes the tri-junction is at a place called Doka La (Doka La is a pass in the Sikkim sector), which is located in the middle of the Doklam plateau. On the other hand, China contends that the tri-junction is located at a place called Gamochen, a few kilometers south of Doka La. Reports suggests that China already has a road near Doka La and wants to extend it further south towards Gamochen, which is guarded by the Indian troops. Gamochen would amount to intrusion into Bhutan territory, which will amount to threathening the security ofIndia as it would bring the Chinese close to the Siliguri Corridor.[3]

Siliguri Corridor

The Siliguri Corridor, which is about 200 km long and 60 km wide,  is regarded as a very sensitive and strategic area for India. This is an area so constricted that if this land connection is blocked under any circumstance, India will find itself cut off from its strategic parts of Northeast states. However, it has been argued that even after the debacle in 1962, there is little to show preparedness to defend this strategic corridor.[4] The Siliguri Corridor lies in the Chumbi Valley of Chinese-held Tibetan Autonomous Region that is contiguous to the Indian States of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. While the Chumbi Valley is flanked on either side, by Sikkim on its west and Bhutan on the east, Nepal shares a common border with Sikkim and the Chinese and Indian armies are face-to-face along the whole of Arunachal Pradesh. The corridor extends from Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and Terai areas of West Bengal towards the North East.[5]All the trade between the North Eastern area and the rest of India happens through this corridor. It is also the hub for rail and road network connecting West Bengal and the rest of North East region whilethe railway connectivity connects to the military formations along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

From the New Jalpaiguri (NJP) railway station, a rail link moves towards Guwahati in Assam, Dimapur in Nagaland and Dibrugarh in upper Assam. From Guwahati a road network moves towards the strategically important Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. The LAC is merely 25km away from Tawang. This road and rail network provides essential supplies to the Army’s 4 Corps. From Dimapur the road moves to the rest of Nagaland and from Dibrugarh to  western Arunachal. This network serves the Army’s 3 Corps. The railway network also caters to requirement of 33 Corps, which has its military formation based in Sikkim.

As India and China have disputed border issues, regular border skirmishes mostly from the Chinese are all but common. China is increasing infrastructure development along the border with India and in Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), which includes roads and highways, railway lines, strategic airfields. The roads are built in such a way that they can take on heavy weight traffic, leading right up to the LAC. It has been argued that such development in infrastructure has been created for quick mobilization of troops in case of conflict with India. The upgradation of the road from Lhasa to Yadong is also said to have increased China’s strategic assets near the Doklam. China is also working on extending the Beijing-Lhasa high-speed railway line to Yadong, which is expected to begin test runs in less than two years. This enhances China’s military logistics in the region along the Siliguri Corridor. If the road in Doklamis connected to Yadong, it would greatly enhance China’s capabilities in choking the corridor.[6]Thus, in the light of China’s increasing infrastructure development and with strategic implications, the road  being constructed in the Doklam plateau would result in the cutting off the North East and three primary military formations units and drastically reducing the supply of equipment and reinforcements to them.

India’s Action in Sikkim is Quoted as “Betrayal” of Treaty

Calling India’s actions at the Sikkim border a “betrayal”,Chinese foreign ministry spokesman GengShuang said in a media briefingthat, “The India-China boundary in the Sikkim section is well demarcated. The action taken by India is a betrayal of the position taken by the Indian governments.”[7]To substantiate his argument, he goes on to state that former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru endorsed the 1890 Sino-British Treaty on Sikkim in a letter to then Chinese counterpart Zhou Enlai in 1959 and that successive Indian governments have also endorsed this.”[8] He added that India needs to observe the treaty and pull back troops immediately from Doklam.

China and India have been engaged in a stand-off in the Doka La area near the Bhutan tri-junction for almost a month in what has been the longest such impasse between the two armies since 1962.Sikkim, which became a part of India in May 1976, is the only state, which has a demarcated border with China. The lines are based on a treaty signed with the Chinese in 1898.[9]The standoff first came to public notice when China denied Indian pilgrims entry for Kailash Mansarovar Yatra through the Nathu La pass in Sikkim. Beijing initially said it stopped the Yatra due to damage to roads in Tibet after rains and landslides. But soon signalled the matter was related to the standoff between the two armies near Sikkim.[10]

China has though maintained that there is no objection to normal bilateral relations between India and Bhutan but firmly opposed to the Indian side infringing on Chinese territory using Bhutan as an excuse.Further, for the Chinese, Bhutan apparently does not know that the Indian troops entered into the Doklam area, which is not in line with what is claimed by the Indian side.[11]

India and Bhutan

Bhutan and India enjoy the closest relationship of mutual trust and confidence and enduring friendship.Bhutan, however, has no diplomatic ties with China. It is supported militarily and diplomatically by India. Under the 2007 India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty, the two sides have agreed to “cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests. There is a tacit agreement between the two countries that neither government will allow the use of its territory for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other. While the 2007 treaty is meant to respect the sensitivities of Bhutan regarding its sovereignty, the Indian military is virtually responsible for protecting Bhutan from the kind of external threat that the Chinese military poses.[12]

In India’s only official statement on the standoff, the Ministry of External Affairs said that on June 16, a “PLA (People’s Liberation Army) construction party entered the Doklam area and attempted to construct a road. The statement stated “It is our understanding that a Royal Bhutan Army patrol attempted to dissuade them from this unilateral activity.”Further, the statement went on to say that the Foreign Ministry of Bhutan “has also issued a statement underlining that the construction of the road inside Bhutanese territory is a direct violation of the 1988 and 1998 agreements between Bhutan and China and affects the process of demarcating the boundary between these two countries.”[13]


China with growing strong relationships with India’s manyneighbours– Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Nepal shows that China is trying to make a strong influence in South Asia. Improved ties with Thimphu will be in line with China’s plan to forge a rock-solid strategic presence encircling India. A stand down by India on Doklam will weaken its standing in south Asia, especially at a time when Prime Minister NarendraModi has already pursued a  vigorousneighbourhood diplomacy. Apart from the strategic concerns, the Doklam faceoff is considered as a chance for India to strengthen its relationship with Bhutan, the first country Prime Minister Modi visited after taking power in May 2014. Over the decades, India has made substantial investments in Bhutan, particularly in energy projects,which account for nearly 80 percent of the nation’s imports.Experts are of the view that China is testing the India-Bhutan relationship while at the same time they have a motive to exert its dominance over the Chumbi Valley, which is a part of the southern reaches of Tibet. By claiming the Doka La area, Beijing wants to maximise its geographical advantage so that it can monitor all movements along the India-Bhutan border.