Shekar Gupta who is a regular on NDTV operates the website ThePrint

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 organisation) 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 organisational 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:

Satellite Image_1 (Google Earth)

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.