India puts brakes on road to China

Despite growing clamour for reopening vintage road to boost trans-regional trade, India drags its feet over China fears.

The 1,736-kilometre long road links India, Myanmar, and China [Subhamoy Bhattacharjee/Al Jazeera]
The 1,736-kilometre long road links India, Myanmar, and China [Subhamoy Bhattacharjee/Al Jazeera]

Kunming, China – Last week, Chinese and Indian participants at the 8th version of the initiative known as the Kunming to Kolkata Forum (K2K Forum), a summit dedicated to developing relations between the two Asian giants, called for opening a land corridor between Kunming, capital of Yunnan province in China, and Kolkata in eastern India.

The goal: improving sub-regional trade, tourism and industrial investments in the relatively less developed frontier regions of India, Myanmar and China.

The conference, which ran from November 19 to 22, chose not to emphasise the fact that a long-standing road wilth the potential to fulfil this goal already exists. 

The Chinese have developed their side of the 1736-kilometre Stilwell Road into a six-lane highway leading to the Yunnan province. The road – a transnational highway connecting India, Myanmar, and China that was built during the Second World War – is part of Beijing’s “Gateway Strategy” to use this frontier zone to connect to several South Asian and Southeast Asian countries through improved air, rail and road links.

Yunnan Construction Engineering Group, a Chinese company, is now engaged in upgrading the Burmese portion of the road for using it for boosting trade.

But despite its declared intent to use its troubled northeastern states to connect to China and Southeast Asia as part of its “Look East” foreign policy initiative to foster closer ties with its eastern neighbours, India seems uninterested in developing its part of the Stilwell Road, closing down possibilities that it could be used for trilateral trade between less developed frontier zones of South Asian nation with Myanmar and China.

About half of the 61 kilometres of the road that lie in India is barely usable.

“Work started on the Indian portion of this road seven years ago but it seems the condition of the highway has worsened. Much of it is difficult to use during monsoons,” says Indian official Meenakshi Sundaram, as he drives up on the Stilwell Road to the Pangshau Pass that connects northeast India with Myanmar. “There is too much of mud and slush as the highway rises into the mountains of Pangshau from the town of Jairampur.”

Incentive to develop

“There would be a fresh impetus for setting up industries in northeast India if the Stilwell Road was available for trade with China.”

– Nazeeb Arif, former ICC head

The Stilwell Road was completed in 1944 by the Allies who used it to supply Chiang-Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang armies against the Japanese. It starts at Ledo in India’s Assam state, goes into Myanmar through the Pangshau Pass, traverses the Sagaing and Kachin states of Myanmar before winding up into China’s Yunnan province. Six hundred and thirty two kilometres of the road lie in China, with 1033 kilometres in Myanmar.

In the 1990s, there were suggestions that the Stilwell Road could be developed and modernised for transregional trade between India, Myanmar and China amid declarations of interest from India.

The Indian Chamber of Commerce (ICC), in a detailed report, even suggested that the Stilwell Road, if revamped and modernised, could facilitate a substantial part of the growing Sino-Indian bilateral trade, which amounted to $32.4bn in the first half of 2012.

“The markets of southwest China will be much nearer to India’s northeast through this road. There would be a fresh impetus for setting up industries in northeast India if the Stilwell Road was available for trade with China,” says Nazeeb Arif, a former ICC secretary general.

A national seminar organised by the Kolkota-based Maulana Azad Institute of Asian Studies in 2002 unanimously recommended that the Stilwell Road be renovated and opened for trade between eastern India, northern Myanmar and southwest China as part of a sub-regional initiative.

Politicians and business leaders in northeast India reportedly supported the development of the road, as they anticipated it would bring a major boost to local economies of Upper Assam and eastern Arunachal Pradesh – and perhaps for the rest of India’s northeast with time.

Myanmar, for its part, which was initially circumspect about revamping the Stilwell Road, is now said to have farmed out a contract to a Chinese company, which has already developed the stretch of the historic road from the Chinese border to the Kachin state capital Myitkina.

But as China modernised its part of the Stilwell Road in Yunnan in the last few years and developed the nearby Kunming airport into the country’s fourth largest, India failed to maintain its part of the road. 

‘Horrible condition’

The Indian part of the road is in horrible condition. From Ledo to the town of Jairampur, the two-lane road is manageable, but as the road begins to climb from Jairampur into the mountains en route to the Pangshau pass, it degenerates into a slush-and-mud track in many places. Bamboo groves encroach on the tracks at some places.

The paramilitary Assam Rifles, a group which guards the Indian-Burmese border, said that the situation is slightly better when the rain stops.

“There is a good deal of local trade at the border markets, with traders transporting local necessities on either side,” said K Saju of the Assam Rifles, whose unit stands guard on the Indian side of the Pangshau pass.

The Burmese traders carry their wares in Chinese three-wheelers or motorcycles that can carry heavy loads of goods, while the Indian traders use four-wheel drive jeeps. Items like salt, rice, local herbs, food products and tobacco are all traded.

Saju said that Burmese traders come to Indian markets three times a month, on the 10th, 20th and 30th day of every month, to trade. ‘Those are called the Burma Day”, he said.

For their part, Indian traders go into the Burmese markets to sell their goods every weekend – four times a month. Those are called the “India Day”.

“If an India Day clashes with a Burma Day, we get preference,” says Saju.

But the trade is essentially local in nature, as the Indian border guards maintain a strict watch on possible movement of drugs and weapons from Myanmar.

Indian apprehensions

In part, the Stilwell Road passes through insurgent-infested Tirap-Changlang corridor of India, where a large number of northeastern Indian rebel groups are based.

“There is movement of rebel squads in this area and we have busted many of their camps, but we need to be constantly vigilant,” says Commander R Chauhan of the Assam Rifles.

There is growing demand in India’ north-east for reopening of the Stilwell Road [Subhamoy Bhattacharjee/Al Jazeera]

The rebel activities may explain partly why the road has not been developed for trans-border trade – because more trade might allow rebels to profit from the trade and raise funds for their separatist campaigns against India.

But there appears to be an even greater fear standing in the way of India’s development of the road: China.

The Indian military is one of the most vocal voices against developing the Stilwell Road and opening it for trade with China.

“India’s security will stand compromised because the Chinese would be in a position to use this road in the event of a war,” says retired Lieutenant General J R Mukherjee, a former chief of staff of India’s eastern army.

Mukherjee told a recent seminar in Calcutta that the Stilwell Road would be a major asset for the Chinese.

Another former Indian commerce minister suggested that the Stilwell Road would be used for dumping Chinese goods in India’s northeast.

Instead, Indian diplomats are seeking to promote an alternate and much longer “land corridor” which is being considered to connect southwest China with eastern India through Myanmar, over which a car rally is expected to take place earlier next year.

Source : Al Jazeera

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