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Where China and India merge

Reshma Patil takes the Stilwell Road to a border town where Chinese stroll into India and Beijing builds its way into Myanmar.

world Updated: Oct 02, 2011 01:43 IST
Reshma Patil
Reshma Patil
Hindustan Times

One night in 2001, a 24-year-old Chinese citizen hailing from a remote border town on the southern Silk Road muttered a prayer and darted into Mizoram when the sentry at the Indo-Myanmar border let down his guard.

"I told Indians that I'm from Nagaland. They never checked," the bespectacled middle-school dropout revealed to the Hindustan Times in a mountainous frontier Chinatown called Ruili which is rimmed on three sides by Myanmar.

The man introduced himself with two identities, a Chinese name and a Myanmarese name, spoke fluently in both languages, and marked the time in both nations. In India, he invented a third identity.

Tan (full name withheld) stayed undetected without a visa in India, passing himself off as a 21-year-old to study in Bangalore. He regularly traversed back and forth from India to China through Myanmar --- for six years until 2007. He complained about the cost of the weeklong journey by bus, train and on foot: Rs 5,000 one-way.

It's a journey no Indian dares attempt in reverse: from Mizoram to Mandalay to Ruili. This rural outpost has transformed from an underworld den of heroin and arms dealers into China's strategic gateway to India and the Bay of Bengal with new cross-border highways, railroad and ports connecting it Myanmar.

India's defence ministry this year warned that China has completed roads to all passes on the disputed border. In Tibet, the last dirt track in a county bordering India is being paved, helping meet a goal of extending roads in the Himalayan region from 58,000 km to 70,000 km by 2015.

Tan, a devotee of a state-backed church in his Chinese hometown, prayed to Jesus as he crept into the northeast state. He was not alone. They were a group of eight people from China and Myanmar who vanished inside India through the porous northeast. The crumbling roads may have impeded an advancing army but not the bands of infiltrators or dealers peddling arms to insurgents.

Rebuilding the northeastern roads may in fact make India's borders more secure while bringing the economic opportunities denied to the region.

On the Stilwell Road
"The mountains on this side belong to Miandian (Chinese name for Myanmar) and the mountains on that side are Chinese," explained my driver on the final lap of the restored World War-II China-Burma highway. The nearest Chinese airport to the Myanmar border is at Mangshi city, a two-hour drive on two black-topped lanes hugging a misty mountainside and paddy fields.

The landscape, bisected by a line of motorcycles and overloaded three-wheelers rumbling alongside villages and ramshackle huts, looks like a postcard from northeast Assam. But the Indian stretch of the 1,739-km road built by General Joseph Stilwell and Allied forces from Ledo in Assam to boost Chinese resistance against Japanese invaders is still a jungle trail even though the Indo-Myanmar side of the road has been rebuilt.

The border police sitting on stools at an unmarked checkpost near the Stilwell Road Wetland Park flagged down the taxi and peered in from the windows. Unlike Tan's unchecked passage to India, my passport was photographed as they quizzed me.

"We have a saying that if you want to get rich, first build roads," said Ren Jia, president of the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences in Kunming, the capital of southwest Yunnan province. "We understand why India is not willing to open this road. Stilwell Road is a symbol of cooperation between China, India and Myanmar. We hope it can again link us. When there is a road there is trade."

Yunnan, a hinterland of 26 ethnic minorities, is now being linked by trans-Asian rail and highways to its neighbours Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam through Kunming and Ruili.

To drive on China's side of the Stilwell Road, take the flight from Beijing to Kunming, where the Ledo road ended. The three-hour flight from Beijing to Kunming traverses almost the same distance as Beijing to Urumqi, capital of northwest Xinjiang. Kunming and Urumqi are closer to Myanmar and Pakistan than to most Chinese provinces.

"Chinese writings reveal that Pakistan and Myanmar have now acquired the same place in China's grand strategy in the 21st century that was occupied by Xinjiang (New Territory) and Xizang (Western Treasure House, that is, Tibet)," said Mohan Malik, professor of Asian security at the Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies in Hawaii. "Pakistan is perceived as China's new Xinjiang and Myanmar as China's Xizang in economic, military, and strategic terms."

Border boomtown
The two-lane highway expands to six yawning lanes as it enters China's final frontier on the Myanmar border.

The paddy fields in Ruili where locals grew their own rice have given way to a port and markets selling Myanmarese timber and jade. A railroad from Ruili is snaking toward Myanmar's western port city Kyaukphyu. Chinese engineers are also building a 200-km road on the Myanmar side of the border, besides ports, highways and bridges. A railway from Kunming through Laos and Myanmar to Thailand and a China-Myanmar-Bangladesh road network are in the works.

"We're going to build international highways, railways, water routes, oil and gas channels and make Ruili a pilot city in opening-up," announced the Yunnan governor in June. Authorities brag that their port will be as busy as Shenzhen.

Strategists like Malik point out that the north-south transport corridor along the Irrawaddy River will give Beijing entry into the Indian Ocean and serve military objectives in the event of a conflict with India or the Taiwan Straits, or if a naval blockade is imposed through the Malacca Straits. "Historically, whenever there was conflict between Chinese and Indian interests," he said, "Rangoon gave greater importance to Chinese interests. The Myanmarese dare not antagonise China and they don't fear India."

In Ruili, the Chinese exporters and Myanmarese increasingly depend on each other. Despite the massive infrastructure for a place with under 300.000 residents, the only economic movement is trade in raw materials sourced from Ruili's Myanmar ghettos and marked-up products exported to the world. The town has no university. This reporter never saw a foreign tourist even in the biggest hotel. Residents go to Kunming or Mandalay to graduate. The Chinese in Ruili speak Myanmarese, but not English, and cross their border with special permits. They also trade parcels and messages over the side barricades or simply squeeze through the gaps from one regime to another.

First Published: Oct 02, 2011 00:38 IST