Joydeep Hazarika for BeyondHeadlines
People often talk of mythical roads or passages that lead you to distant exotic countries and lands. Assam also houses one such road that leads you to the oriental world of China. Say hello to the World War II era Ledo Road, better known as Stilwell Road.
The Stilwell Road has been perhaps one of the longest pending decisions by India that has kept the people of northeast in a fix. There have been demands among various sections of the general people and policy makers for the reopening of the road ever since it was closed down after the Indo-China conflict of 1962. The reopening of this road can either bring in new possibilities for the region, or bring in fresh trouble as some anticipate.
The Stilwell Road begins from the small town of Ledo in Assam’s Tinsukia district, passes through Arunachal Pradesh, and then goes through the Kachin state of Mynamar, and then it enter China where it ends at the city of Kunming in Yunnan province. The road was constructed by the British and American allied forces in 1942 during the World War II, after the Japanese cut off the Burma Road. Going through some of the roughest terrains in the Patkai mountain range bordering India and Myanmar, the road was used by allied forces to carry supplies and weapons to the war frontiers in Myanmar and China. In 1945, at the suggestion of Chinese leader Chiang Kai Shek, the road was renamed as Stilwell Road after General Joseph Stilwell of the US Army.
Covering an approximate total length of 1,079 kilometers, the Stilwell Road has only 61 kilometers of area in the Indian side. There has been a long standing demand for the reopening of the road for facilitating trade and communications with Myanmar and China. Of late, strong advocacies for the opening of the road had come in from Assam’s state trade minister Pradyut Bordoloi and Arunachal Pradesh’s former governor J. J. Singh. The opening of the Nathula Pass in Sikkim has reignited the demand to open up this road which has the potential to handle about 20-25% of the Sino-Indian trade. China has mellowed down its claim over Sikkim ever since the Nathula Pass has been thrown open for trade, and now the same is hoped for Arunachal if the Stilwell Road is opened up.
A powerful defence-commerce ministry lobby has blocked the reopening of the road for all these years. Most of the defence lobby advocates feel that opening the road would give China an advantage in any future conflict with India. Some others also feel that opening up of this road would bring in a wave of drug trafficking into India from Myanmar’s Kachin state which is a haven for drug peddlers. Also, many of the militant outfits from northeastern India hold their camps in Kachin, and the opening of the road may open newer vistas for these trouble makers.
While most of these arguments hold genuine concerns that cannot be dismissed away, it still cannot be denied that not opening the road would still not stop China from reaching up to India’s borders.
China has already developed its portion of the road and now Myanmar has also siphoned off the development process of its share of the road to a Chinese company. The truth is that even if India does not open up the road, China would still reach India’s borders by dint of their greater involvement with Myanmar. A large stretch of the road on the Indian side is in a deplorable state, especially from Jairampur to Pangsau Pass. Traders from India and Myanmar hold their trading sessions in weekly bazaars along the border, but that is on a minimal scale. The opening of the Stilwell Road might bring in a new commercial wave in the northeastern region and also throw open the gates to Myanmar and southeast Asia for India. China’s greater involvement with Myanmar might jeopardise India’s plans in southeast Asia and losing out Myanmar in this regard is not a good move.
The Indian Chamber of Commerce had earlier estimated that a renovated Stilwell Road would cut down 30% of transportation costs for goods shipped between India and China. Major new commercial hubs can open up in northeastern India and Myanmar, and also, some effort can also be made to chart out definitive territories in the process.
It is now up to the policy makers sitting in New Delhi to decide as to what they want. There are pros and cons to the act of opening up of the road, but we must act proactively to the possibilities that lie in front of us. There are efforts going on to open a highway from Imphal to Mandalay in Myanmar. If such an initiative can come into being, then surely the Stilwell Road can prove a further boost to our trade and bilateral prospects with China.
India needs to have a greater presence in southeast Asia and here, it cannot choose to stay away as China makes entries into neighbouring Myanmar. The need of the hour is to form a decisive power block in Asia that can act as a formidable strength in the region. And here, the Indian tiger and Chinese dragon can be the most important building blocks.