Kunming is waiting for a historic moment. If Chinese eagerness can overwhelm Indian apprehensions, a 1,700-km road can change the very economic landscape of a region in both the countries benefiting millions. Known as the ‘southern silk route’, the road has its history far beyond the modern era. Passing through Myanmar, from Kunming in the Yunnan province of south western China to Ledo in Assam, this road could well become a landmark in Sino Indian ties.
The visit of the Union Minister for Commerce Jairam Ramesh in in December as head of his ministry’s delegation has been vital. He was categorical in his demand for reopening of the road by 2010.
It was the British army officer Joseph Stilwell who built the Indian side of the road way back in 1942 stretching from Ledo to Pangsau pass in Arunachal Pradesh. After the World War II, the road was closed for security reasons. While China has been eager to reopen the route, India has its own apprehensions about the stretch that passes through Myanmar which is totally controlled by militants.
India is also weary about unbridled supply of arms and ammunitions to militants in the northeast along the route. There are other worries regarding dumping of Chinese wastes, illegal supply of drugs and more importantly, militancy along the route. Notably, India still suffers from the 1962 hangover and is yet to start trusting China fully.
But both the sides realise the utility, at least for the purpose of trade and commerce. The bilateral trade is scheduled to take a giant leap and India’s look east policy can take proper shape only if trade relations are improved through cost effective routes.
The advantages are easy to comprehend. At present, most of Indian export to China is dependent on the arduous sea route stretching 6,000 km. The Stilwell road will cut short the distance and the time to almost one-third. The ports along the coast of Bay of Bengal will be the most important beneficiary. If the road is reopened, these places will flourish as important trade hubs. The Chinese enthusiasm is predictable. It wants to gain access to the throbbing eastern Indian markets and the port facilities.