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Subir Bhaumik
Date of Publish: 2016-01-22




Three Chinese vehicles, one of them a truck,  arrived at the border trade point of Nampong on the Pangsau Pass in the state’s Changlang district, taking the road from Baoshan in China’s Yunnan Province. The truck reached the Indo-Myanmar  border with organic tea, coffee, toys and electronic goods kept in 82 packets on Dec 30. This was for the Chinese participants of the 3rd Assam International Agri-Horti Show 2016 in Guwahati.

Hopes have soared in Assam and the rest of Northeast and many see in this gesture a Chinese attempt -- and perhaps a tgacit Indian acceptance -- of efforts to reopen the famous Stillwell Road. Pangsau pass sits on that famous World War 2 vintage road. There has been strong demand in Assam and Northeast to reopen this road but Delhi has been uncomfortable.

During  Chinese prime minister  Li Keqiang's India visit in May 2013, India agreed to "explore the possibilities of the proposed Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) economic corridor" with China. But New Delhi has been going slow when China has already been in discussion with Myanmar and Bangladesh to take this forward. During Manmohan Singh's Beijing visit, Kunming and Kolkata were declared as sister cities and a study was commissioned to set up the Kolkata-Kunming highway and the economic corridor.

It is New Delhi and not states in the east or north-east that fear Chinese trade and investments along the corridor. This trade can only boost their economies. The opening of the Stilwell Road, built during World War II, is a case in point. Assam's former industry minister Pradyut Bordoloi and Arunachal Pradesh's former governor J J Singh have been enthusiastic about opening the road to China-India trade. Unlike the Nathu La pass in Sikkim, the Stilwell Road is capable of handling 20-25 per cent of Sino-Indian bilateral trade. But a powerful defence-commerce ministry lobby has blocked it all these years.

China has modernised its part of the road and its companies are doing that in Myanmar now. Only 66 km of the road falls in India — so, if the Chinese army uses it to amass troops on the Indian border for a surprise offensive or dump their products in a trade war, they can do it even if India does not formally open the road. Also, trade with India via Arunachal Pradesh will immediately stop all claims of that region as "southern Tibet".

Note how quickly China shed its reservations on Sikkim, after trade resumed through the Nathu La pass. Gen (retd) J J Singh, a former army chief, advocated an Indian presence on the road for pragmatic reasons, but that did not help with the mandarins in Delhi.

So, an alternate route was chosen for the BCIM car rally in February-March 2014: it started at Kolkata, passed through Bangladesh and India's north-eastern states of Assam and Manipur, and ended in Kunming, Yunnan via west and north Myanmar.

Now, China wants the car rally route to be converted into the BCIM Friendship highway and turned into an economic corridor with industries, trading entrepots and tourism infrastructure developed around it. This is an excellent idea. Large parts of China, contiguous with south Asia, are landlocked. The Strait of Malacca is a choke point that China wants to bypass through overland trade through Myanmar, Bangladesh and the north-east of India.

Beijing wants to transform BCIM into a live regional grouping to integrate the two most populous nations of the world and use the Bangladesh-Myanmar corridor to help Chindia draw south-east Asia into the world's strongest future economic bloc. Beijing hopes that India sheds its fear of encirclement by China and creates a win-win situation for both countries in Asia, from south-east to west.

India, especially its eastern and north-eastern states, would stand to gain much more economically by higher trade and connectivity with China and the rest of Asia. On the other hand, there is no material gain if India acts as a pivot for American interests in south Asia.

A formal push for the BCIM during Manmohan Singh's China visit could have boosted investments and help chief ministers or industry ministers in the east and north-east to showcase their states to Chinese investors. If the home ministry can waive its objections and agree to allow Chinese telecom majors like Huawei to invest in the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor or the Indian embassy in Beijing can rope in huge Chinese investments for Andhra Pradesh, the east and north-east should not be deprived because the region has a long border with China.

But Modi was worse -- far from doing anything for the East, he got Chinese President Xi Jinping start his visit from home state Gujarat so that all Chinese investments would flood western India. He seemed back on the old Delhi logic that Chinese presence in East is dangerous , so we can’t have an oil refinery in Assam and it must be set up in Barauni whereas when hydel power in needed, all the big dams can come up in Arunachal Pradesh. What hypocrisy! As if China will not bomb these dams and would have selectively bombed an oil refinery in Assam.

I have said before that the Chinese would love to invest in east and northeast along the BCIM highway which is why they want this converted into a corridor. They would also love to start their visit from Bengal or Northeast becausethey would love Naga smoked pork, Assamese tangyfish or Bengali fish curry and mutton kosha rather than the bland flat Gujarati Dhokla. That is why Chinese Vice Premier started his India visit from Calcutta recently in a message to Modi that can be summarised as ' enough of Gujarat'.

For the east and Northeast, much will change if Delhi agrees to Chinese investments and connectivity with China through ourregion. No big Indian manufacturer will set up shop in Northeast if promised a small market in Laos. They will come only when they get to access the Chinese market overland -- because the sea route to eastern China coast is long and expensive.

An Indian Chamber of Commerce study had shown the Stillwell Road, if developed and renovated can handle upto 20 percent of the current bilaterla trade between India and China. Because Chinese ports are far away in the East, the land option is much better for tapping at least markets in Western and south-western China that has more than thirty percent of China's population.  But our generals fear China may use the Stillwell Road in the event of a 1962 type war and our industry and bureaucrats fear a huge Chinese dumping. But after much writing by some like me, Delhi now seems to realise that China can use the Stilwell for both purposes even if we don’t open up.

Economic interdependence and investments in each other's economies is the only sure way of avoiding conflict. It is important for Delhi to push Beijing to change its structure of trade and bring down import barriers to ensure a more favourable trade balance for India. And to build the roads, highways and infrastructure that can bind the two most populous and fast-growing nations in the world to each other.

Hence the trucks from Baoshan seemed to us in Northeast as the Gift of the Maggi, a light at the end of the tunnel. Let Delhi understand what we want and realise that the Chinese are smart unlike the Pakistani military and they will never make war if they can do business.

Subir Bhaumik

(Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC Correspondent and now works as Senior Editor of Dhaka-based bdnews24.com. His books on Northeast "Insurgent Crossfire" and "Troubled Periphery" are well acclaimed. His forthcoming book "Agartala Doctrine" is being published by Oxford University Press. )



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