Bilateral International Relations Prelims cum Mains

A year after Doklam face-off

The Topic

  • On August 28, 2017, after a 73-day face-off in Doklam- India and China announced disengagement of border personnel from the site.
  • Now, a year on, a look at the face-off, its resolution, and what has happened since then.



  • Bhutan shares a 470 km border with China in the north.
  • Since 1984, it has been in talks with the Chinese and has succeeded in reducing its disputed territory from 1128 sq kms to just 269 sq kms.
  • This, however, was done by Bhutan voluntarily ceding territory. But China continues to maintain its claims over seven areas and is pushing the hardest in the Doka La area.
  • According to the written agreements of 1988 and 1998 between Bhutan and China, the two sides agreed for the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity in the Bhutan-China Border Area. The treaty explicitly says that prior to the final solution of the problem, the two countries should maintain “the status quo of the boundary prior to March 1959.”
  • Also, in a 1949 treaty, Bhutan agreed to let India guide its foreign policy and defence affairs, making it a protected state of India.
  • In 2007, that treaty was superseded by a new friendship treaty that made it mandatory on Bhutan to take India’s guidance on foreign policy, but providing it broader sovereignty in other matters such as arms imports
  • Thus, earlier in June,2017, the faceoff on Doklam plateau in Doklam area of Bhutan between Indian and Chinese soldiers started , when People’s Liberation Army soldiers engaged in building road-works on the Doklam plateau of Bhutan’s territory that Beijing laid claim.
  • Beijing responded by closing access to Indian pilgrims seeking to proceed through the Nathu La pass on to Kailash-Mansarovar.
  • India initiated diplomatic communications with the Chinese side in Beijing to seek a resolution: 13 rounds of negotiations were held.
  • Both sides were conscious of the importance of ending the face-off before the BRICS Summit in Xiamen, scheduled in September 2017.
  • After six weeks of diplomatic persuasion, India got the Chinese side to reach an agreement to resolve the situation with the disengagement of border personnel at the site on August 28, 2017.
  • The Chinese removed troops, equipment and tents by 150 m from the site, while Indian troops returned to their original positions.
  • This addressed the challenge of the Chinese building a road and concerns about them pushing the tri-junction point southwards.
  • But it did not bring the Chinese troops back to the status quo as before June 16, 2017 as they remained deployed in northern Doklam where they were earlier absent.


What were India’s concerns?

  • Doklam (Zhoglam or Droklam or Donglang) is a narrow plateau lying in the tri-junction of India, China and Bhutan. This had implications for the determination of the tri-junction point demarcating India, China and Bhutan.
  • Road construction would have brought the Chinese military close to the India border in West Bengal and exposed the Jampheri ridge to the possibility of Chinese presence, creating serious security vulnerability for the Silguri Corridor. This became a red line for India.
  • India was working in close coordination with Bhutan at various levels, and was equally concerned about the violation of its 1988 and 1998 agreements with China; these do not allow any change in status quo while boundary negotiations were in progress.



What arguments did India put forth in the negotiations with China?

  1. India contested the Chinese claims of sovereignty over this region as it is part of Bhutan.
  2. India argued that the Chinese attempt to alter the status quo amounted to a unilateral determination of the tri-junction of the three countries. Moreover, the India-China boundary in Sikkim sector had not been settled as the Anglo-Chinese convention of 1890.
  3. China was violating the 2012 written common understanding between the two countries that the tri-junction would be finalised in consultation with all concerned countries.
  4. Having a basis of alignment of the India-China boundary is not the same as finalisation of boundary, as corroborated by the Chinese request for an early harvest to finalise the boundary.
  5. China selectively quoting Nehru on the Sikkim boundary was against a full and accurate account of his letter.
  6. Settlement of India-China boundary questions was best left to the two Special Representatives.
  7. Continuation of the faceoff was not in the mutual interest of India and China and prolonging it would only give others an opportunity to take advantage.
  8. India reminded the Chinese side of the Astana Consensus wherein both sides had agreed that differences should not become disputes.


Had China entered Doklam earlier?

  • As per External Affairs Ministry records, Chinese troops have been entering Bhutan areas since as far back as 1966, when India sent a protest note as it was handling the foreign policy for Bhutan.
  • In Doklam, this has been happening regularly in the last two decades, where the Chinese have been coming down from Batang la, Merugla Sinchala ridge line.
  • The Bhutanese usually stop them when they come up to the Torsana la.
  • Usual Chinese patrols comprised less than 10 soldiers, but this time there were 80 people with a lot of construction equipment.
  • This was with a declared purpose of extending a road they had built over the last 15 years in northern Doklam up to the point of face-off.


Developments since one year

  • Tensions have subsided to a great extent between India and China following an informal summit between the PM of the two countries.
  • The two leaders agreed to provide “strategic guidance” to their militaries, which has since led to both armies working actively to avoid any confrontation.
  • India and China would be holding a series of dialogues, including the 21st round of talks on the unsettled boundary between their special representatives, besides separate talks involving their defence and home ministers.
  • Recently, on a four-day visit to India Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe focused on stepping up strategic communication between the two countries.


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