Filling in the blanks of Doklam faceoff

Indian troops intervened this day two years ago at Doklam to prevent the Chinese PLA from unilaterally changing status quo on the Doklam plateau by constructing a road to a disputed trijunction and shifting the Sino-Bhutan border 6 km south to the Jamferi ridge.

Filling in the blanks of Doklam faceoff

Thwarted: India successfully overcame China’s coercive strategy at Doklam in June 2017.

Maj-Gen Ashok K Mehta (retd)

Maj-Gen Ashok K Mehta (retd)
Former GOC, IPKF, Sri Lanka

Indian troops intervened this day two years ago at Doklam to prevent the Chinese PLA from unilaterally changing status quo on the Doklam plateau by constructing a road to a disputed trijunction and shifting the Sino-Bhutan border 6 km south to the Jamferi ridge. The cartographic aggression was nipped in the bud. From June 17 to August 28, the Indian Army and the PLA were locked in a standoff at Doklam, adjoining the Indian Army post at Doka la. The rest is history.

On June 29, 2017, the Royal Government of Bhutan issued this press release: on June 16, 2017, the Chinese Army started constructing a motorable road from Doka la in the Doklam area towards the Bhutan Army camp at Jamferi in violation of the written agreements of 1988 and 1998 by which the two sides had agreed to maintain peace and tranquillity in the border areas, pending final settlement of the boundary question and maintaining status quo on the boundary as before March 1959. On June 20, Bhutan issued a demarche to China urging status quo in Doklam as before June 17, 2017.

On June 30, India issued a press release on the recent developments in the Doklam Area. It recounted Bhutan's press release, adding that Bhutan and India were in close consultation through the unfolding of the development. In coordination with Bhutan, Indian personnel at Doka la approached the Chinese construction party and urged them to desist from changing status quo. It reminded China on the understanding reached in 2012 on the basis of the alignment in Sikkim and the finalisation of the boundary that had been taking place under the Special Representatives Framework. India urged China not to change status by respecting bilateral understandings between them. This was the first and last press release and briefing of the media by Foreign Secretary S Jaiashankar on June 30. 

Two years later, after visits to Sikkim, Bhutan and Nepal, one can fill in the blanks of the two press releases. While no Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) troops remained at Doklam after warning the PLA on 16/17 June, Indian soldiers from 9 JaKLi 200 m away at the Doka la post rushed to the road construction site. The first person to walk on to the Doklam Plateau was Brig Gambhir Singh, commanding 63 Mountain Brigade. He went unarmed and alone, warning the PLA that its actions were violative of bilateral agreements between India and Bhutan and China and Bhutan. 9 JaKLi had deployed one company at Doklam, blocking the PLA at the construction site. The rest of the battalion was deployed along the international border. 

Contrary to reports of the time, neither Indian troops nor the PLA formed a human chain and all were unarmed. This faceoff remained for 73 days when the troops disengaged.

Doklam has given a sudden impetus to infrastructure development in the region with long-delayed projects being sanctioned expeditiously. Now, a black-top road has replaced the track to the Doka la post, the Sikkim allowance of Rs 3,000 increased by a princely sum of Rs 41 and Gangtok declared a semi-field area. The Shashi Tharoor-headed parliamentary committee which visited the site has commended the government for its strong and affirmative handling of the Doklam confrontation. It has, however, added that the PLA has built an impressive military infrastructure in North Doklam which will give it a strategic edge in the Chumbi valley where it was previously disadvantaged.

The Chinese were attempting to shift the India-Bhutan-China trijunction from the Batang la to Gimpoche, 6 km south of Batang la on the Jamferi ridge, thereby posing a direct threat to the Siliguri corridor. President Trump believed, till recently, that Sikkim's two neighbours which were never colonised — Nepal and Bhutan — are part of India. That will anger the Chinese no end after the trade war with US and also settle the Doklam issue. 

On Doklam, Thimpu has tested positive on Article 2 of the India-Bhutan Treaty of 2007 which corrected the missing defence and security clause in the 1949 Friendship Treaty. It reads: 'Both countries will cooperate closely on issues relating to national interest. Neither side will allow use of territory for activity harmful to national security and interests of the other'. This was described in the Indian press release of June 30 as consultations between two governments. Interestingly, no reference was made to the 2007 treaty arrangements. Only once was a hint thrown by former Finance and Defence Minister Arun Jaitley soon after the standoff at a media organisation's conclave where he said: 'We have a treaty arrangement with Bhutan'. Conspicuously no mention by any other Indian official was ever made to the India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty of 2007. China on the other hand, did mention 'We know that Bhutan is a protectorate of India'. 

Unlike the wholesale employment of surgical strikes in PoK and air strikes in Balakot, Pakistan, during state and national elections, Modi and his star campaigners were loath to brag about Doklam in order to preserve the Wuhan spirit and fight on one front. India's success in thwarting China's coercive strategy at Doklam prevented a fait accompli similar to the one China delivered in the South China Sea by constructing militarised islands in areas claimed by littoral countries. 

Still, like the Balakot air strikes may turn out to be effective in deterring Pakistan from carrying out more spectacular Pulwama-like high casualty suicide attacks, Doklam coupled with Wuhan has dissuaded the PLA from staging the likes of Chumars and Depsangs transgressing the unmarked LAC. But keep your fingers crossed.


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