Kunming is awaiting a historic moment.
If Chinese eagerness can overwhelm Indian fears, a 1700km road will change the economic landscape of a remote region of both countries. For Kunming lies at the start of the Southern Silk Route, a road that has the weight of history behind it, but presently barely exists. From Kunming in the Yunnan province of south west China to Ledo in Assam, this road could well become a landmark in Sino-Indian ties.
When Union Minister for Commerce Jairam Ramesh visited this region in December, he was categorical that the road be opened by 2010.
It was the British army officer Joseph Stilwell who built the Indian side of the road in 1942 stretching from Ledo to Pangsau pass in Arunachal Pradesh. But after the war the road was closed for security reasons. While China has been to eager to reopen it, India has its own apprehensions about the stretch that passes through Myanmar, where the region is totally controlled by militants. India is also wary that an unbridled supply of arms and ammunition may be provided to militants in the North East along the route. More importantly India still suffers from the 1962 hangover and is yet to start trusting China fully.
The advantages of the road are easy to see. At present most Indian exports to China depend on the arduous sea route stretching 6000km. The Stilwell Road will cut short the distance and the time taken to almost one-third.
China’s enthusiasm is predictable. It wants to gain access to the throbbing Eastern Indian markets and port facilities.
All this talk about reopening the road is the result of the Kunming Initiative held way back in 1999. It was a joint endeavour by four governments — Bangladesh, China, India, and Myanmar. It was a aimed at establishing multilateral agreements in the areas of trade, tourism, agriculture, natural resources, transportation, telecommunications and energy. It was also an initiative to establish effective communications, rail and road and road links.