Doklam is located on the tri-junction of Sino-Indian-Bhutan border on the Himalayan Range. It is a high-altitude plateau above 4000 meters which covers an area of approximately 233 square kilometres (kms). It is a disputed territory essentially between China and Bhutan but of great strategic importance for India. It lies between Chumbi Valley, Tibet Autonomous Region of China in the north, India’s Sikkim State to the west and Bhutan’s Haa valley and Samtse District to the east and south respectively. The width of the plateau is about 5 kms.

Donkya Range in the lower Himalayas separates the Tibetan (Chinese) Chumbi Valley from the Indian state of Sikkim on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). In the south at Gipmochai Mountain, it bifurcates in two great spurs; the south-eastern spur is known as Jampheri (or Zampelli) ridge which separates the Bhutanese districts of Haa to the north and Samtse to the south. This ridge located in the south of Doklam is of great strategic importance to India as it overlooks the narrow Indian Siliguri Corridor located at an approximate distance of 80 kms in the southern direction.

Doklam plateau is served with a number of passes (La is used for passes in Bhutanese language) which provide access to the Plateau through the surrounding mountains. The tactically important passes are, DokaLa and BatangLa located on Donkya range at the junction of Bhutan’s Samtse province and the Indian Sikkim state and are held by the Indian Army under a treaty between the two countries which provides for the external defence of Bhutan by India. The historic NathuLa is another pass having strategic importance which is located outside Doklam Plateau on the Sino-Indian border at a distance of 7 km from DokaLa in the north-western direction. Within Doklam Plateau, DokaLa carries a greater tactical importance as it is located closer to the Jampheri ridge and can subsequently facilitate PLA’s (People’s Liberation Army) operations towards Indian Siliguri Corridor. China believes that the tri-junction of Sino-Indian-Bhutan border lies at Doka La, whereas India and Bhutan contend that it is at Batang La, a few kms in the north.

Siliguri is a strategically important city of India located at the foothills of eastern Himalayas in the northern tip of West Bengal Province. It is a main communication centre having railways junction, road networks and an international airport and connects four international borders; China, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Nepal. In addition, it also connects the Mainland India with its landlocked states in the north-east across Bangladesh through a narrow strip of land running between Bhutan and Bangladesh which is about 200 kms long and 60 kms wide. At its north-west, it is just about 17 kms wide between the northern tip of Bangladesh and south-eastern edge of Nepal. This route is known as the Siliguri Corridor commonly known as Chicken’s Neck. Being the gateway to the north-east India, the Corridor is a hub of rail and road network connecting the Mainland India with the Seven Sister States in the north-east, namely; Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Tripura, Meghalaya and Mizoram. These Indian states form about 8 percent of the Indian landmass and have a population of about 45 million.

Militarily, the Siliguri Corridor through its road and railway networks, also logistically feeds the Indian formations located in the north eastern theatre which includes III and IV Corps (45000 men in each corps) to take care of the Chinese border in the north and Myanmar and Bangladesh borders in the east and south-west respectively. India envisages the main threat from China in the north in Arunachal Pradesh on which China has a claim over almost the entire province. Thus the lack of the geographical depth of the Siliguri Corridor and its proximity to Doklam Plateau makes it very vulnerable. According to Indian Army’s assessment, Jampheri ridge, if captured shall be of a great advantage to the PLA as the Siliguri Corridor will come under their direct observation and fire and can effectively cut off the logistic supply of the Indian formations deployed in the north-eastern theatre from the mainland. Additionally, in case the PLA launches a major offensive on Indian state of Sikkim along the NathuLa axis, can slice India of its north-eastern provinces. The susceptibility of these provinces is further enhanced politically due to the fact that there are more than 25 armed ethnic separatist movements which are active there. In such an eventuality, China would definitely exploit this political advantage.

In order to compensate for the exposure of Siliguri Corridor, in 1980, India proposed a 4 to 6 kms passage through Bangladesh’s Tetulia sub division in the northern Dinajpur District on the narrow northern tip of Bangladesh. This is named as the projected ‘Tetulia Corridor’ which would join the Indian north-eastern provinces of Assam with West Bengal in the Mainland. Apparently, India’s proposal is in the name of enhancing commerce in the area but it has great strategic importance. This besides providing about 20 kms more geographical depth to the Siliguri Corridor would also shorten the distance for about 84 kms from the Indian Mainland to its north-eastern provinces. Bangladesh’s reluctance however can be judged from the fact that even after a lapse of about 40 years, the acceptance of the proposal is still pending with them. Unfortunately for India, during the 1971 Indo-Pak war, the Indian leadership lacked the vision to broker a deal with the Bengali separatists to cede their Rangpur district to India against the latter’s help in the shape of huge military invasion of former East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) with an Army Group. Or India could have at least demanded an eighty kms corridor between Indian village of Hili (east Dakshin Dinajpur District) in West Bengal and Mahenderagenj (South Western Garo Hills District) of the north-western Meghalaya province in the north-east India, through the southern edge of Bangladesh’s Rangpur Division. This, besides substantially shortening the distance between West Bengal Mainland India, with its north-eastern provinces and providing a much secure logistical route, would also have added about 200 kms depth to the Siliguri Corridor.

In June 2017 a military standoff took place between PLA and Indian Army at Doklam. India tags this incident as the ‘Doklam Crisis.’ The cause of this standoff has to be attributed towards the Chinese attempt to extend the road coming from Chumbi Valley towards Indian manned, Bhutanese Doka La. This prompted the Indian troops at DokaLa to roll down and stop the activity. The standoff terminated after 72 days after hectic thirteen rounds of talks between Indian PM Mr Modi and the Chinese President, Mr Xi Jinping at Wuhan in China on the request of the former. Nevertheless, the Chinese succeeded in constructing the road up to only 70 meters short of the DokaLa. While India started its usual rhetoric of trumpeting its victory for stopping the PLA’s advance, China cleverly gained out of the incident at the strategic level by stepping up the escalation ladder between two countries and forcing India to surge its force level in the sector in contradiction to the ‘Agreement of Peace and Tranquillity’ signed between the two countries in 1993. This gave a legitimate reason to the Chinese to reciprocate by permanently bringing in about 200,000 troops in their Tibetan Autonomous Region, developing the infrastructure for movement of troops and logistics, construction of forward airbases and defence fortifications and carrying out intensive training in the high-altitude environment. This activity continues to date. Thus, the Chinese strategic move was misconstrued as a tactical victory by India.

After losing the strategically important plateau of Aksai Chin to China in Ladakh in the western sector of Sino-Indian border, Doklam is a red line for India in the eastern sector. While Bangladesh has also recently decided to form part of the Chinese BRI, the vulnerability of the Chicken’s Neck has further enhanced being the only impediment for the BRI route from north to the Bay of Bengal in the south through Bangladesh.