For some in the English mainstream media, Doklam is a gift which keeps on giving. Various articles and analysis offered on the subject have ranged from few balanced pieces to many which have been sensationalist.
Latest in this series, comes an article from ‘The Print’ which claims that Chinese have found a new route to South Doklam.
The article relies on satellite imagery (purchased by the news organization) to claim and I quote :
“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”
It further states :
“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”
There is an inherent contradiction in the above assertion. Google search of the meaning of the word bypass gives the following, “a road passing around a town or its centre to provide an alternative route for through traffic”
Now, if as per the analysis given in the article itself, the road being constructed by the Chinese is at a distance of 4 km from the point of the stand-off, and is an ALTERNATE route along a different alignment, how have the Chinese bypassed the point of Indian blockade?
Interestingly, while the article provides two separate satellite images which show the original point of conflict opposite Indian positions along Doka La and the point from where a new road is supposed to start towards Jampheri ridge, it does not provide them together on a SINGLE satellite image; something which would’ve have shown the relative position of the two locations. Yes, there is an illustration which shows the original stand-off point and direction of a new road under construction but it oversimplifies the ground situation.
To put things in perspective, let’s look at the satellite image of the plateau. But before we do so, here is a word of caution – the article claims to have obtained satellite images as of February 2018. And since I’m but an armchair general with no such organizational backing, I’ll be using the Google Earth (GE) satellite images. As per time stamp on GE, the satellite image of the area was updated on 10th December 2018.
Here is the satellite image of the Doklam plateau along with major features:
A quick summary of the places mentioned on the map (La means mountain pass):
- Senche La: The main access point for the Chinese. A major road from Chumbi Valley comes to Doklam across this pass.
- Merug La: Another mountain pass on the ridgeline. Also leads into Chumbi Valley and other sectors north of Doklam opposite India-Tibet border in Sikkim.
- Batang La – The tri-junction as per India and Bhutan where Indian, Tibetan and Bhutanese boundaries meet.
- Doka La – On India-Bhutan border where Indian Army maintains a strong presence. Indian troops had moved from this position to block the road construction activity by the Chinese towards Jampheri Ridge.
- Mount Gymochen/Mount Gipmoche – Tri-junction of Indian, Tibet and Bhutanese boundaries as per the Chinese. If this point is accepted as boundary tri-junction, it will place entire Doklam plateau in Chinese control.
- Torsa Nala – Water body which drains into the Amo Chu river. This V-shaped depression with steep walls divides the Doklam Plateau into two segment – north and south. As will be explained later, the presence of this steep depression has a major impact on the ground situation.
- Point A – the approximate location where the stand-off between India and Chinese troops happened
- Point B – the last point in eastern part of the Doklam Plateau from where a road/track is supposedly being built by the Chinese towards Jampheri Ridge
So, where is the bypass?
There is none. With India showing the resolve to block construction work from Point A towards Jampheri Ridge, the Chinese seem to be trying to build an ALTERNATE, and much more difficult and challenging road towards the ridge. That is if they’re trying to build a road in the first place.
So, if the Chinese are super clever and can build a road towards the ridge from Point B (as claimed in the analysis in ‘The Print’), why did they not do it earlier?
There are two main reasons why Chinese wanted to construct a road/track from opposite to Indian positions on Doka La towards the Jampheri Ridge. These are as follows:
- It is in-line with Chinese claim that the tri-junction of Tibetan-Indian-Bhutanese boundaries lies on Mount Gymochen/Gipmoche. Over last many years, Chinese have slowly, but surely, build infrastructure on the plateau and extended their hold on it. They’d already reached a point opposite Indian position on Doka La. The road building exercise towards Jampheri ridge was an extension of their creeping occupation of the plateau.
- Geography of the plateau!
- The area along and in front of the Indo-Bhutanese border on the plateau is the most conducive to build a road/track connecting northern and southern parts of the plateau.
- As explained earlier, the Torsa Nala is a deep V-shaped depression on the plateau which divides it into the northern and southern half. This depression runs in the west to east direction with the depth of the depression increasing sharply as we move from east. This becomes evident when you compare the altitude of various points along the Nala. For example, in the GE satellite map below, the difference in altitude of Point D [3,999 meters (13,120 feet)], which is close to Indian position along Doka La and Point E [3,417 meters (11,210 feet)] is evident.
While there is no denying the fact that Chinese access and control of Jampheri Ridge poses threat to Indian security, what is also true is that had the Chinese wanted to build a road towards it through the eastern part of the plateau, they would’ve attempted to do so in the past. While not insurmountable, building a road along this direction requires much more engineering effort as compared to building a road/track from the area opposite Indian positions on Doka La.
The challenge of building a road from Point B towards the Jampheri Ridge (or Point H marked on the map) is demonstrated in GE satellite image below. The map shows a direct route between Point B and Point H. Also given towards the bottom part of the satellite image is the elevation profile of this direct route. Please note that right corner of this elevation profile corresponds to Point H and left corner to Point B.
While both Point B and Point H are at an elevation in excess of 4,000 meters (13,123 feet), the deepest point along the direct route between Point B & H is at 3,406 meters (11,175 feet). A difference in elevation of more than 1,900 feet from either point! Another important thing is the slope or gradient; there is a steep decline from Point B to the deepest point and a steep climb/incline from this point towards Point H.
What this means is that Chinese will have to be build winding roads with multiple loops while going down towards the Torsa Nala and then while going-up from it towards the ridge. Something similar to the famous ‘gata-loops’ along the Srinagar-Leh highway.
And this will take time.
That is if they actually are building a road or decide to build such a road in future.
In comparison, consider the elevation profile of the road/track planned earlier from Point A towards Point G. It is much gentler. The path starts at Point A [4.049 meter (13,284 feet)] and ends at the place below Point G on the ridge. This endpoint is at an altitude of 4,087 meters (13,408 feet). The lowest point on this route is at about 3,961 meters (12,995 feet).
It was the Indian action of blocking their original effort last year whereby they will have to opt for an alternate and much more difficult alignment.
And in doing so, Chinese are not being clever by half. Indian analysts tend to suffer from ‘7-foot China-man syndrome’ where anything & everything which the Chinese do is supposed to have deep profound wisdom behind it.
In this case, a forced necessity is being described as an example of Chinese cleverness!
The Chinese claim line in Doklam
The final paragraph of the article consists of the following:
The construction seems to be targeted at providing access to the ridge connecting Mt Gipmochi with Mt Gyamochen. The ridgeline is a possible claim line, although the real claims of China have not been made public till date.
First, as far as I understand, Mount Gipmoche and Mount Gyamochen are the same; old topographic maps of this region mention either of the two names. So, the ridgeline runs from Mount Gipmoche/Gymochen towards the east and then curves in south-eastward direction. It runs parallel to Amo Chu River and losses altitude as it moves south-east.
Coming to the Chinese claim lines, the Chinese claims in this region are much larger than Doklam. And the claim line does run along the Jampheri Ridge.
I reproduce two maps below. First is a Chinese map which highlights the disputed areas between Bhutan and China, as per the Chinese. The second map was shared by the Chinese foreign ministry official when explaining the Indian ‘aggression’ after India blocked their construction activity.
The blow of above map which highlights the boundary issue in the present area:
Below map was released by Chinese Foreign Ministry during one of their briefings to explain Indian ‘aggression’
The alignment of the boundary along the Jampheri ridge-line, east of Mount Gipmoche/Gymochen can be made out in both the maps. And follows the alignment along the ridge towards the Amo Chu river.
I’ve tried to create the Chinese claim line on a Google Earth map by using features I could identify. These features correspond to those mentioned in Chinese claims as per the two maps attached earlier.
The reason Chinese are doing this is because it gives depth to Chinese positions in the Chumbi Valley. As has been widely reported, Chumbi Valley is extremely narrow with steep mountainsides on either side. This gives very less real estate to PLA to station troops and provisions. Further, this puts them at disadvantage vis-à-vis India position on ridges to the west along Sikkim-Tibet border.
The importance of this area to the Chinese can be gauged from the fact that Chinese have in past tried to get Bhutan to exchange 495 sq.km area of disputed area in the north for the total area of 269 sq.km in western Bhutan. This covers the Doklam Plateau as well as larger area towards its east and north-east.
Final Word – Need for balanced analysis
The use of open source, high-resolution satellite images, backed with professional military analysis, is a welcome addition to the media world. The images and analysis give common people a peep into events or aspects which are generally not available outside the security establishment.
However, what is also required is that such analysis is balanced and provides a holistic picture of the ground situation. Along with professional military analysis which covers all the aspect. What we’re witnessing of late is the use of information – satellite images – to present only a part of the picture. And too in a sensational manner. The unbiased and complete military appreciation of the situation is also missing.
Till we get more balanced analysis, keyboard commandos and arm-chair generals like me will have to rely on free Google Earth satellite images and do our own analysis!