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Lesson on de-escalation from Doklam stand-off

Slow and steady:Google Earth maps show that the development of a road towards Torsa Nullah, at one end of Jampheri ridge, in Bhutan, continued between Dec. 2017- Dec. 2019.TakshashilaInstitution

Slow and steady:Google Earth maps show that the development of a road towards Torsa Nullah, at one end of Jampheri ridge, in Bhutan, continued between Dec. 2017- Dec. 2019.TakshashilaInstitution  

The government must not agree to de-escalate the situation at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh without an agreement on returning to “ status quo ante ” or the situation before the stand-off began, said experts, who pointed to the outcome of the Doklam stand-off in 2017 as a marker.

“The lesson for us in Doklam is that disengagement is not enough in order to declare an end to tensions at the LAC. It is necessary that we define end points up to where the troops must withdraw to and no understanding should be reached without the restoration of status quo ante ,” said Ashok Kantha, former Ambassador to China and the Director of the Institute of Chinese Studies.

Monday’s statement

On Monday, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) issued a statement detailing a phone conversation between National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and his Chinese interlocutor Foreign Minister Wang Yi over which it was decided to disengage and de-escalate the military mobilisation at the Galwan Valley and other points of conflict between the Indian Army and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) that has lasted more than two months.

The three-paragraph statement issued was considerably longer than the MEA statement issued after the Doklam stand-off that lasted two-and-a-half months, from June 16 to August 28, 2017.

At the time, the “Press statement on Doklam disengagement understanding” had said only that the “expeditious disengagement of border personnel at the face-off site at Doklam has been agreed to and is on-going”, as a result of diplomatic talks. Since then, the MEA has said in response to questions in Parliament, that the “ status quo ” has been maintained at the stand-off point, below the Indian post at Doko-La.

According to experts, however, while the disengagement brought an end to hostilities between India and China over China’s attempt to build a road near the India-China-Bhutan tri-junction area, transgressing into Bhutanese territory, it did not stop the PLA’s construction work right across the Doklam plateau.

“If the military only agrees on disengagement and de-escalation, it may end up at a disadvantage,” Mr. Kantha told The Hindu . “Today, the PLA has constructed major infrastructure and consolidated its position in Doklam..”

“My sense is that the variances in [Indian and Chinese statements] reflects the potential for future trouble for India à la Doklam,” said Lieutenant General (Retd) Prakash Menon, Director, Strategic Studies Programme, at Takshashila Institution, who formerly was a military adviser at the National Security Council Secretariat.

Maps accessed from Google Earth show that the development of the road towards the Torsa Nullah, at one end of the Jampheri ridge, which is Bhutanese territory, continued between December 2017- December 2019.

The images, part of a study released in May 2020 called “Doklam Update” by scholar Anirudh Kanisetti at the Bangalore-based Takshashila Institution, also traces images from 2009, when there was only vegetation on the plateau and surrounding areas, and now, when roads, buildings and trenches can be seen.

Government sources who did not wish to be identified said that the satellite pictures and ground reports show PLA troops had resumed construction activity in the Doklam plateau a few months after the disengagement, and had consolidated positions across the 90 sq. km. Doklam plateau by the end of 2018. The sources said that the PLA has made two “black-top” or asphalt roads inside the disputed territory with Bhutan, which are extensions of two Chinese roads, to the east and to the south.

‘Road work completed’

“The southern one has now reached up to the junction of Amo Chu and Torsa Nullah, thereby extending the Chinese Claim Line well into the territory,” said the sources.

Effectively this means that the Chinese have gone around India’s objections and used a more circuitous route, but completed their road building project, the sources said.

Given the precedent, China’s latest claim on eastern Bhutan that abuts Arunachal Pradesh, where another tri-junction exists, should be watched closely as well, they said.

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