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 – a move that has serious strategic implications for New Delhi.
The Doklam crisis was sparked in June last year after Indian troops crossed over to stop the construction of a road that would enable the Chinese military to move vehicles to South Doklam, thus giving it easy access to the Jampheri ridge that overlooks the strategic Siliguri corridor.
After a tense standoff that saw both sides moving heavy weaponry, including tanks and missile units to forward areas, India and China decided to pull back troops from the point of contention in late August, with the understanding that status quo had been achieved.
However, latest satellite imagery from the area suggests that while road construction at the point of contention has stopped, China has been working through the winter to create an alternate route that will give it access to the southern part of the plateau.
Unlike the June standoff, where Indian troops had to climb down about 100 meters from their posts to block construction, the new Chinese alignment is deep into Bhutanese territory and over 4 km away from the Indian border, leaving narrow choices for an intervention.
As reported by ThePrint and flagged by Army chief Gen. Bipin Rawat last year, China has permanently occupied North Doklam, constructing new posts, helipads and fortifications, even as the standoff continued.
The alternate access to South Doklam will present a fresh challenge to the Indian and Bhutanese sides, which may not be comfortable with the access and claim that it gives to China over the disputed area.
“If the Chinese build a road going south towards Elephant Lake and reach the Jampheri ridge, it will be a major dilemma for India. Last year, we had to move just about 100 metres into the territory claimed by China and block its road construction towards the Bhutanese post on the Jampheri ridge,” said Manoj Joshi, distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Institute (ORF).
Joshi, who wrote a detailed paper on the Doklam standoff last year, said significant resources would be needed to counter this new approach by the Chinese.
“But to block their access along a road which may be 4-5 kilometres to the east of Doka La would require a significant military action. India has never claimed that territory, but even if Bhutan asks India to intervene on its behalf, it could be a tough call,” he said.
Here is a detailed look at the new Chinese approach.
Latest satellite images show that China has been active in road construction through the winters on reverse slopes in Doklam – which are not directly under observation by the opposing forces.
The fact that the months of January and February haven’t been as cold as usual has helped the People’s Liberation Army’s plan.
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. The road is not yet black-topped.
Images show that one particular area has been levelled flat by Chinese construction units. The area levelled is approximately 6,500 sq m. It is likely to be used for some kind of barracks construction, or may be used as parking area.
The Chinese PLA is very good at camouflage and hiding troop movement. The PLA uses tunnelling for this purpose. Small tunnels are constructed to hide equipment. Tents are also pitched partially below ground so that only roof of the tent is visible.
The movement of troops is conducted on the reverse slope only to avoid detection. This could have made it appear that troop strength in the area has been reduced.
The construction seems to be targeted at providing access to the ridge connecting Mt Gipmochi with Mt Gyamochen. The ridge line is a possible claim line, although the real claims of China have not been made public till date.
With the construction being 4 km away from Indian posts, there are few options available. One possibility is to occupy the ridge between Mt Gipmochi to Mt Gyamochen at the earliest, but that would require an invitation or request for assistance from the Bhutanese side.