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Subir Bhaumik, Former BBC Correspondent
PHOTO : A map of Stillwell Road in Assam displaying the distance to China, Myanmar locations.

During Chinese premier Li Keqiang’s India visit in last May, India agreed to ‘explore the possibilities of the proposed BCIM economic corridor’ with China. In December last year, the BCIM nations decided to start 'joint research' on how to take forward the Chinese proposal for creating an BCIM economic corridor.

BCIM stands for Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar , a regional grouping that China appears to have grown very enthusiastic about . But having agreed to ‘explore’ the possibilities of BCIM, India appears to be on a go-slow mode , wondering if we stand to gain as much as China does from an economic corridor across a frontier region marred by conflict and disputes.

When Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was in China last October, the Chinese checked out with his team on what the Indians have done to ‘explore the possibilities of the BCIM economic corridor’.  Unfortunately, the Indians did not have much to show, beyond ‘initial exploration’ by way of checking with concerned state governments on how to take this forward. Manmohan Singh told Li Keqiang that India’s federal structure and the reality of its coalition politics necessitates  a slow response, much slower than what the Chinese would expect. 

 But the truth is different. It is Delhi and not the states in east or northeast who fear Chinese trade and investments because that can boost their uninspiring economy. Specially when Indian private capital , as Manishankar Aiyar had once said, has been ‘criminal  in its neglect’ of the Northeast  and there is not much the region can expect from the West or even Japan .  But if they shy away from pushing for Chinese trade and investment, it is because they anticipate a negative response from Delhi.

 The opening of the World War 11 vintage Stillwell Road is a case in point. Assam’s industries minister Pradyut Bordoloi and Arunachal Pradesh’s former governor  J J Singh have been enthusiastic about revamping this road and opening it to trans-national traffic because they saw possible spin-offs for the two states and the rest of Northeast, if a substantial part of the Sino-Indian bilateral trade passed through the road. And unlike the Nathu La pass in Sikkim , the Stillwell Road is, according to a Indian Chamber of Commerce study earlier in the decade, capable of handling between one-fifth to one-fourth of the Sino-Indian bilateral trade. Because the Chinese ports in the east are far away and it saves much to import for the country’s west and south-west through a land route like Stillwell road, with savings on transport costs and time estimated to be in the 35-45% range at the least.

 But a powerful Defence-Commerce Ministry lobby has blocked it all these years. China has modernized its part of the road and its companies are doing that in Myanmar now. Only 66 kms of the road falls in India – so if the Chinese army can use it to mass 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. J J Singh is a former army chief and advocated an Indian presence on the road for pragmatic reasons, but that did not help. 

So an alternate route was chosen for the BCIM car rally in February-March 2013 – one that starts at Calcutta, passes through Bangladesh and India’s northeastern states of Assam  and Manipur and ends up in Kunming (Yunnan) via west and northern Myanmar. There is a much shorter direct road to China through Chowkham and Kibhitu  that can be developed instead of Stillwell road that passes through the troubled Kachin state of Myanmar . But while Nathu La was reopened , there is no initiative to open a road to China from the northeast. If China trades through Arunachal as an Indian province, will it be able to press  its claim on it as ‘Southern Tibet’ anymore ! Look what happened to its objections to Sikkim being 'forcefully integrated into India after the opening to Nathu La to trade.But this is something the big brains in our Ministry of External Affairs cannot perceive.

 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 all around it . Obsessed with physical connectivity to secure land-to-sea connectivity so that it can bypass the Malacca straits ‘chokepoint’  , China has pushed for transforming BCIM into a live regional grouping to integrate the two most populous nations of the world and then use the Bangladesh-Myanmar corridor to help ‘Chindia’ draw south-east Asia into what the Chinese economists see as the world’s strongest future economic bloc.

Sample this from Chinese commentator Gu Yihang in Yunnan-based ‘Link Times’ : “ China, Southeast Asia and South Asia are home to half of the world’s populations, resource rich reserves and broad trade space have made this region one of the world’s most appealing investment and commerce regions. In forseeable future, the integration of the three markets will change the global economic outlook”.  

Premier Li has said China’s bridgehead strategy out of the frontier province of Yunnan to connect to neighbouring countries of South and South-east Asia coincides with India’s Look-East policy which he seemed to welcome rather than oppose. The Chinese say they don’t  see a disconnect between the two and only wish India shed its fear of encirclement by China ( a ‘US-motivated ghost called string of pearls’ , as one Chinese analyst said recently) and create a win-win situation for both countries in Asia , from south-east to west. China feels India would stand to gain much more economically by higher trade and connectivity with China and the rest of Asia  than by playing an ‘Asian pivot’ for Obama which only helps the US and western countries boost their sale of military hardware to India.

(Mr. Subir Bhaumik is a veteran journalist and author of ‘Insurgent Crossfire’ and ‘Troubled Periphery’) 


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