On December 30, for the first time since 1962, a Chinese truck used the Stilwell Road to bring goods to India
Tokong Pertin is the trade and commerce director of Arunachal Pradesh, a state not known for business prospects, and certainly not for international business. But this past December 30 was different. He says it came as “a ray of hope for a better future for business in the state.”
Early that day, Pertin left for Nampong, over 350 kms from state capital Itanagar, to witness history. He saw a Chinese mini truck loaded with goods along with two light vehicles enter India through Nampong using the Stilwell Road, a route New Delhi pronounced dead decades ago even though the North East has forever hoped it reopens to revive its traditional trade relations with China and South East Asia.
Pertin says the three vehicles arrived at the border trade point of Nampong at Pangsau Pass in the state’s Changlang district, taking the road from Baoshan in China’s Yunnan Province. The truck reached the Indo-Burma border with organic tea, coffee, toys and electronic goods kept in 82 packets, meant for the Chinese participants of the 3rd Assam International Agri-Horti Show 2016 in Guwahati.
“Even though the customs office in Nampong was notified in 1950, the trade route has been non-operational for about 70 years. There is now hardly any record available on trade done through the route. After the 1962 Chinese aggression, all hope of reopening the office ended. But on December 30, it was reopened to let in the goods brought by that truck from China,” says Pertin. Though the Arunachal government was not directly involved, he says, “the district administration was informed about it and I was there only to witness the historic moment.” However symbolic it may be, an excited Pertin adds, “We welcome it as we have been requesting the Central government time and again to reopen the road for trade.” He says some time ago, the state government built a concrete structure near the 1950s one at Nampong. Customs officials were posted too. These developments were the result of a January 2014 meeting in New Delhi by the UPA government to boost border trade, not between China and India, but with Myanmar.
Anuradha Goswami of the Assam horticulture department, the show’s organisers along with the Indian Chambers of Commerce, relates the sequence of events that led to the unusual development.
“The Chinese participants wanted to bring their goods by the land route. So we sent three land route requests to the customs commissionerate in Shillong [which has jurisdiction for the entire northeast] – Moreh (i.e. the Indo-Myanmar border in Manipur), Dauki (the Indo-Bangladesh border in Meghalaya) and Nampong (the Indo-Myanmar border in Arunachal Pradesh). In November 2015, we were informed that the Nampong route on the Stilwell Road has been approved. The Chinese truck started on December 26th from Yunnan and reached Guwahati on January 1.” The goods for the four-day show, which ended on January 9, were brought by 21 Chinese companies.
The unconventional event may have been missed by the national media but it certainly raises the question: Is India testing the waters before reopening a fourth land trade route with China? Already, three such routes – Lipulekh Pass in Pithoragarh (Uttarakhand), Shipki La in Kinnaur (Himachal Pradesh) and Nathu La (Sikkim) – have been reopened.
Also, is India’s Look East Policy finally set to move from being mere rhetoric to becoming “Act East”, thereby boosting industry in the landlocked North East?
Senior journalist Subir Bhaumik, a part of the Track II Kolkata to Kunming (K2K) initiative which led to talk of a BCIM (Bangladesh-China-India-Mynamar) economic corridor for the first time among the four heads of government in 2011, is both startled and enthused by the news. “Even the 2013 BCIM car rally used the Kolkata-Dhaka-Mandalay-Kunming route and not Stilwell. But the Centre for Studies in International Relations and Development (CSIRD) submitted a report, of which I was a part, just before the visit of Chinese Premier Xi Jingping in 2014. The report gave the Indian government two other routes to engage with its eastern neighbours. While one road was through Tibet, the other was the Stilwell Road.”
Both have been traditional routes used for trade and commerce between the two sides through history. The Stilwell Road is believed to have been used by the Ahoms in the 14th century to enter Assam. Originally called the Ledo Road, the United States, during the Second World War, spent $137 million on it s as to save itself from losing its planes in the North East Frontier Agency – as Arunachal Pradesh was called at the time – while on supply missions to Japanese-occupied China. It was named after General Joseph Stilwell of the US Army in early 1945.
Former Indian ambassador to China, C. Dasgupta, also expresses surprise at this quiet development on the Indo-Myanmar border. “All I can say is that it is interesting, I didn’t know about it. What has been known is that the Stilwell Road involves very difficult terrain, with many sharp twists and turns and is not suitable for trade,” he says. Full of gradients, spirals and endless landslides, the road – an aerial view of it looks like zigzag icing on a cake – was nicknamed “Hell’s Pass” by the Americans during the Second World War.
India never took interest in reviving the Stilwell Road primarily because it looked at it as a risky investment considering China’s territorial claims on Arunachal Pradesh and the activities of of North East insurgent groups in that part of Myanmar.
Says Bhaumik, “That the Chinese will enter India through Arunachal easily if the roads are constructed is an old fear of the Indian Army. It has no substantial rationale behind it, particularly because the Chinese have already built the 632 km stretch of their part of the road and connected it to its major highways. It has given its traders a ready market in Myanmar that way. Also, the Myanmar government gave a Chinese company the construction rights of their part of the road. Some portions of the road about 140 kms from the Indian border are not in a very good shape now. The Indian government should offer to do it up immediately. This will not only allow Indian traders the Myanmar market and the Western China market but will also put a check on the illegal transport of drugs, arms and goods. It is good also from the security point of view. It is better to have a presence than have nothing.”
Yet another fear has been that opening of that road will lead to Chinese goods flooding the north-eastern market. “But it is happening anyway illegally. If the route is made legal, at least it will allow the North East traders to look at the market properly and pump in their goods through it to not only the Myanmar market but also the Western China market. Importantly, it will boost manufacturing in the region,” says Bhaumik. The BCIM route, he says is not feasible for the northeast. “Take Upper Assam, which is the state’s business hub. The goods will have to come all the way to Silchar in lower Assam to use the economic corridor. Ledo is closer.”
Interestingly, China is also looking at connecting Kunming to Singapore by land. In an April, 2015 article in Mainstream, Arunachal Pradesh-based academic Jajati K. Pattnaik noted, “Then goods from Singapore can directly reach Nampong, Ledo and other parts of north-east India through the Kunming-Singapore trunk road or Kunming-Singapore railways and vice versa.”
Last year, the minister of state for home affairs, Kiren Rijiju, assured Arunachal chief minister Nabam Tuki of the Centre’s plan to prioritise the reopening of the Stilwell Road, a move away from the traditional Indian stand. Though Rijiju has so far preferred to keep quiet on the latest development, it looks like India’s Look East Policy under the Modi regime may see some action finally.