Here's a land route that would not only open up the possibilities for India's Northeast to trade and interact with its eastern neighbours, but as an overland link would also work to cement relationships between Southasia, East Asia and Southeast Asia.

Hacked out of the jungle 60 years ago as part of the Allied push to end Japanese military domination in Asia, the Stilwell Road, if reborn, may soon instigate a sea-change in the Asian economic balance. Further, there's little reason to believe that the reverberations of such a shift would be confined to the eastern hemisphere. While recent years have seen increasingly fervent discussions of the rising — and rival — individual mights of India and China, the current momentum to reopen the link between the two countries promises a whole new consideration: the prospect of further aligning the two economies, which jointly comprise 40 per cent of the global population.

While most of the men who built the Stilwell Road are now dead, the Road itself remains: disused in many places, crumbling in others, and in a few areas impassable during heavy rains. Built by Asian labour and American machines and travelled by trucks constructed in Detroit factories, the Road was once a testament to America's emergence as an economic superpower. At that time, India, Burma and China were seen as little more than conduits and destinations for goods made elsewhere. Today that dynamic has changed.

Perhaps more so now than during that era, the Stilwell Road is not one road, but many roads. Passing through South, Southeast and East Asia through fractious, politicised regions, it is a very real, physical route through difficult terrain. In November 2004 and April 2005, a series of overland surveys found that, contrary to public perception, the road is very much motorable. Except for a stretch of about 80 km in Burma that remains impassable without a bridge during the rainy season, the work needed for a revival of the road is not nearly as extensive as the public has been led to believe. Some of that work is already underway or complete; the Chinese portion is essentially done. China is also currently providing funds and working extensively with Burma -including the creation of a new shortcut that dramatically cuts the Burmese portion in half.

In the wartime atmosphere when the Stilwell Road was first laid, the task was physically daunting but remarkably free of political complexities. Reopening the Road, on the other hand, will involve several governments and their bureaucracies. It is even possible that the most important forces pushing through the opening will not necessarily be national governments, but the agitations of trade, modernity and human connection.

Wartime update

While the Stilwell Road itself was put down in the early 1940s, the mountainous course that it follows had long been an integral part of the so-called ancient Southern Silk Route. Based on new evidence, historians now say that trade along this track between China, Burma and India could have been going on in full swing as early as the second century BC. Traders bartered jade, silk, silver, tea and lacquerware, while Buddhist and Hindu missionaries treaded the route as a threshold to East Asia.

The shortest land route between northeastern India and southwestern China, the Stilwell Road connects the rail spur at Ledo in Assam to the provincial capital of Kunming in Yunnan, over a distance of 1,736 km. US Army General Joseph Stilwell, who was the regional commander of US troops as well as Chiang Kai-shek's chief of staff, was defeated by the Japanese in Burma in the spring of 1942. After retreating, Stilwell prepared for a counterattack and ordered into existence the supply link that would bear his name. Fifteen thousand soldiers and countless local workers laboured for two years, carving a muddy track and parallel fuel pipeline through the heavily forested mountains. The feat was an engineering marvel, a labour nightmare – and, elsewhere as the war took its own route, an unnecessarily massive effort. Completed in 1945, the Japanese surrender of eight months later brought the wartime need for the Road to an end.

Known as the Burma Road in China, the Ledo Road in Burma, and the Stilwell Road in India, the course was composed of around 57 km in India, 1,040 km in Burma, and 639 km in China. The Indian part of the Road has been closed since 1961, mainly for security reasons, and some stretches have fallen into disrepair. Similarly, about 80 km of the Road in Burma is barely passable during the rainy season. China, on the other hand, has built a six-lane highway from Kunming that ends abruptly at the Burmese border. It is largely stubborn determination on the part of the Chinese that has given the reopening plan its current momentum. While the old Stilwell Road is still used by local border-crossing traders, significantly greater has been the illegal trafficking between India, China, Burma, and Southeast Asia. A reopening would convert much of the contraband transport to legitimate trade.

Three countries

The current movement towards reopening the Road was formally initiated in August of 1999, when China, India and Burma – as well as Bangladesh ¬met in China's southern province of Yunnan and officially approved an agreement known as the Kunming Initiative. On a broad level, the Initiative decided to improve communications between India's northeast and south-western China. While general talk involved the possibilities of developing rail, water, and air links, specific emphasis was placed on revitalising the old Southern Silk Route. Chinese and Indian officials eagerly pushed for the infrastructure project to get underway, however, a former Indian ambassador to China urged the Kunming delegates to be patient – to wait while New Delhi wrestled with its own issues and doubts. That patience may now be paying off.

Back in 1991, while facing imminent bankruptcy, India ushered in a series of belated financial reforms and the first place it turned to was the burgeoning market that was Southeast Asia. That year, India not only took steps towards ASEAN partnership, policymakers also put in place a Look East policy that positioned the Northeast at the forefront of its strategy. Despite this, it has only been over the past year that New Delhi is finally placing serious focus on the region as an eastern gateway. The largest component of such a strategy would be the reopening of the Stilwell Road, while there is an effort underway to reestablish international trade through Sikkim (see accompanying article pp). Undoubtedly, some of this flurry has to do with a push for closer economic interaction with Southeast Asia. Much of it also has to do with the giant, hurried steps currently being taken by both China and India towards one another.

That pace is partly to make up for lost time. Security concerns have long played the most critical role in formulating India's regional foreign policy -particularly the perceived 'vulnerability' along its Himalayan frontier, which is a legacy of the 1962 war with China. Trade, for the time being, took a back seat. In the meantime, traditional trade routes crucial to the local economies dried up, while new land routes were rarely discussed. The Northeast has faced a debilitating paradox as local crossborder trade has been outlawed due to security concerns, while trade between the secluded region and the rest of India has failed to develop. The inter-community and secessionist violence that continues to rack the poor, agrarian region has only made New Delhio:'s policymakers more skittish about opening it up to international traffic and attention.

Even as New Delhi has waffled on the matter, the northeastern states are overwhelmingly in favour of reopening the Stilwell Road. Leading that charge has been Pradyut Bordoloi, Assam's Minister of Environment and Forests, in whose constituency the Road begins. In 2002, Bordoloi participated in the Dhaka meet of the Kunming Initiative – an unusually forthright action for a minister; in so doing, Bordoloi essentially bypassed New Delhi, taking his concerns directly to the international delegates. Bordoloi is joined by key politicians, as well as numerous local businessmen, academics, tour operators, security experts, travel writers, filmmakers, and – most importantly – the tribal communities that live along the Road, whose cultural and familial ties transcend political frontiers. Northeastern academics, top-level state and national politicians, as well as large corporate interests have all expressed the view that reconstruction of the Road is the ideal vehicle for advancing vital economic ties between the Northeast, ASEAN partner countries and China.

Since the 1999 signing of the Kunming Initiative, the Stilwell project has received intermittent jolts of energy. In October of 2000, India declared its section of the Road a national highway (No 153). After China, Bangladesh and Burma had officially endorsed the agreement in 1999, the head of the Indian delegation followed suit at the 2002 Dhaka meet. The Northeast Council, a committee that focuses on economic development of the region, also gave its formal support to the project in November of that year. This year, however, has seen a unique flurry of action ¬kicked off on January 20 when a high-level Indian team visited the Nampong-Pangsaw Pass, the border point between Burma and Arunachal Pradesh along the Stilwell Road. There, national officials publicly stressed the need for creating basic infrastructure to promote crossborder trade and promising all possible help from New Delhi. A month after that official site visit, Congress President Sonia Gandhi stated in a speech in Arunachal Pradesh that the reopening of traditional trade routes with neighbouring Burma (as well as with Tibet and Bhutan) would give a much-needed boost to the economy of the state and the region.

India's movement on the Stilwell project follows a thaw in its dealings with China. While tense Sino-Indian relations long placed such talks off limits, the successful settlement of the long-running dispute over Sikkim and ongoing efforts regarding the border at Arunachal Pradesh have soothed political sensitivities. In February of 2005, during a visit to the Assamese capital Guwahati, officials of the Yunnan Provincial Chamber of Commerce (YPCC) strongly recommended that the Road be opened to help traders in the Northeast, Burma, and Yunnan. To that end, the YPCC has taken the matter up with Chinese authorities to help expedite the Road's reconstruction. Two months later, on the occasion of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's historic visit to India, it was disclosed that China had already started renovations to the Road in Burma, in a unilateral effort to connect Yunnan to that country and ultimately to India. The Chinese authorities have now completed initial surveys and a detailed renovation plan is near release.

To demonstrate its support for the reopening of the transnational link, China has transformed its portion of the Road into a modern superhighway. The major artery-in-waiting not only leads directly to Kunming, but also to the neighbouring province of Guangdong. That powerhouse province's GDP not only grew a staggering 14.5 per cent last year, it is also expected to top USD 250 billion by 2006. In the other direction, the new highway ends abruptly at the Burmese border. Despite China's mining and logging interests in Burma, there is only one reason to build a massive thoroughfare to the middle of nowhere: the future possibilities towards India. In a sense, China's entire relationship with Burma has long been built on such a long-term view. While India used to be Burma's largest supporter, during the 1970s and 1980s that relationship was neglected; Burma inevitably realigned with China, its other monumentally powerful neighbour. Now China is everywhere in Burma and Chinese earth-movers are currently hard at work reshaping and upgrading the Ledo Road – the obvious extension of the six-lane mammoth that ends at the border.

Burma, indeed, has remained the project's physical lynchpin, as well as its most temperamental obstacle. The formidable problems plaguing Rangoon's military junta – including the ones that it has brought on itself – have included ethnic resisting Rangoon's strongarm tactics, as well as concerns over human rights violations; both of these are centred directly in the area through which the Road passes. Such issues have weighed heavily on the minds of Burma's leadership and, despite tentative past agreements, as of 2004 Rangoon had again definitively rejected any possibility of reopening the Road to international traffic.

On June 15 of this year a news item from Rangoon suddenly reported that Burma would reopen its section of the Stilwell Road by 2006. This followed discussions between the Burmese Ministry of Commerce and the India-Burma Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry, held the previous month. Several joint projects are currently underway between New Delhi and Rangoon, including the planning of a major gas pipeline from Burma to India via Bangladesh, as well as linking ports between the two countries on the two sides of the Bay of Bengal. While all of this international bridge-building is undoubtedly a welcome change from the resounding condemnation that the junta typically receives, the country's pariah status has nevertheless taken a significant toll. Burma is desperately in need of foreign currency and is now actively propagating regional tourism as a key resource.

In recent years, China has become poised to emerge as the single most crucial component to India's export growth. According to recent reports, in 2004-05 China became India's second-largest trade partner, as well as the second-largest destination for India's exports – both trailing only the US. Only two years earlier, Chinese products were merely the sixth largest among Indian imports.

Total trade between the two countries has gone from a few hundred million dollars in the late 1990s to USD 13.6 billion in 2004. With efficient overland routes such as the Stilwell Road inactive, Sino-Indian trade has continued to be shunted by sea all the way around the Southeast Asian peninsula.

A continuation of such stasis would only impede current economic forecasts. With China's rapidly growing GDP, the demand for imports of raw materials, components and parts is expected to continue to rise in the near future. With China's GDP set to grow between 7.7 and 8.7 per cent between 2004 and 2008, this means USD 20 billion in bilateral trade between China and India by 2008. From this perspective, India – and its northeastern states – must move immediately to foster closer and more broad-based economic ties with China. Despite the recent increases, current trade between the two countries still makes up only eight per cent of India's total exports and only one percent of China's. At an August 2005 economic conference in India, Chinese officials characterised those figures as miniscule compared to the size of the two countries and pushed to start talks on a Sino-Indian free trade agreement. Given the enormous expense currently necessary to shuttle goods between the two countries via the 6,000 km sea route, an efficient land link would be the only option for such an agreement to result in the desired economic stimulus.

The Northeast-Yunnan link

Given the proximity between Yunnan province and India's Northeast, a reopened Stilwell Road would be almost as important as a region-to-region relationship as a transnational one. Despite the recent boom in trade between the two, none of India's current exports to China are sourced from the resource-rich Northeast. Up until now, shipping costs have simply been too high. China has, however, expressed significant interest in importing rice, tea, neem, and a variety of other agricultural products sourced from the northeastern region. This would be a crucial development for the area, albeit a happily problematic one: as the Northeast has never had a significant market for its agro-products, producers have never placed much emphasis on capacity-building.

Currently, Indian imports from Yunnan include chemicals, items used by the pharmaceutical industry, mineral products and silk yarn. From India, Yunnan imports oil seeds and mills, marine products, pharmaceuticals and fine chemicals, iron and steel, textiles, and raw silk. The Yunnan Provincial Government is now anxious to import a variety of additional agricultural products grown in the Northeast. Yunnan's interest in perishable items over a relatively short distance would require a road (or rail) link between the two countries.

If more direct transit existed between the Northeast and ASEAN countries, tourists on the heavily trafficked Southeast Asia circuit would be significantly more inclined come this way. A recent report states that if the tourism potential of the Northeast were fully developed, within 20 years the region could receive as many tourists as Singapore and Bangkok. Such high expectations are based on tapping into the Chinese tourism market which is expected to boom. Currently the entire northeast with its beautiful mountain landscape, its rainforests and diverse cultures, is being exploited only by a small number of tour operators specialising in 'adventure' tourism.

Perhaps more than many others, the tribal and other marginalised grous in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh in particular would benefit greatly from both a transnational thoroughfare, as well as any growth in tourism and associated infrastructure. Many of these groups have had close historic ties that have been cut due to border and travel restrictions. The Kachins of Burma, for instance, are ethnically and culturally nearly identical to both the Singphos in Upper Assam and the Jingpaws in southwestern China. Members of the three groups have little if any sanctioned contact, however, as a result of current travel restrictions along the Road. In addition to a long-awaited removal of those obstacles, tourism is seen as the one activity that would trickle down to all segments of society, in particular benefiting local communities.

Increased tourism from a reopened Stilwell Road would be of great benefit to the northeastern regions of Burma. All throughout Kachin state, new tourism infrastructure is now visible, including the appearance of numerous roadside restaurants. A tiger reserve has been established near Tanai. Despite its location, current trade negotiations look to use Burma less as a partner than as a conduit. While significant finances already flow between the country and China, the present value of formal Burmese imports from India is about INR 22 billion per year. According to a study by the Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, however, the potential for additional trade with Burma, and especially with bordering states in the Northeast, is considerable. Informal Indo-Burmese trade is estimated to be 44 times the amount of formal trade and includes electronics, Chinese textiles, pirated media and narcotics. Burma is interested in increasing its pharmaceutical imports from India, as well as encouraging more active trade in vehicle parts, cotton yarn, branded foods, petroleum products and construction materials. Although some of these items would be able to be imported more cheaply because of reduced shipping costs, Burma's main benefits from a new international trade route would be through transit fees and tourism-related activities.

For the Northeast

While linking the northeast with Kachin state and Yunnan would of course be welcome, reopening the Road would allow the Northeast to emerge as a major transit centre for both the SAARC and ASEAN regions. Along with a significant increase in transnational trade, such a development could also provide a resounding answer to one of India's longest lingering dilemmas: the largely ignored employment problem in the country's cloistered Northeast. It is a problem that began with the British, when colonial mapmakers created security barriers at the edge of the hills and severed ancient routes of trade and cultural exchange. With the loss of nearby trade partners to both its north and east, the Northeast became completely dependent on mainland India for trade options through the 37 km-wide Siliguri corridor in West Bengal. While both colonial and independent India have utilised the Northeast as an important resource garden, the long, circuitous routes that the indigenous products have to take to exit the region have made them prohibitively expensive for any market.

Due in large part to its geopolitical placement, the Northeast is widely acknowledged as India's economic laggard. With roughly 40 million people —30 per cent of them from tribal communities — the Northeast makes up less than four per cent of India's population. The economic deprivation that has masked the northeast, whose overwhelmingly rural populace (90 per cent) earns nearly half that of the rest of India.

That inertia has fed the lingering separatist violence that the rest of the Subcontinent associates with this region. With arms, illegal drugs, and ideology already coming from across India's borders, many have voiced concern over the years that reopening sanctioned international border crossings would only enhance those negative effects. But others, more circumspect observers maintain that the reopening of trade routes such as the Stilwell Road would boost the economy as well as help still at long last the many rebellions in the Northeast. The former Director General of the Indian Border Security Force, E.N. Rammohan posited in a 2005 essay that, "Roads are the first enemies of insurgents. Denied of a hinterland, he has no place to retreat. Today this is the first step to be taken by the Government of India."

Current restrictions and the absence of legitimate customs points have also been a reason for the voluminous entry of smuggled goods from China and Burma into India. According to customs and security experts, the reopening of the Road and the regular movement of endorsed traffic would significantly reduce contraband movement through the area. Since the demand for these goods is already high, many would greatly benefit from legitimising that trade through the collection of customs fees, excise taxes and tolls along the Road. While there are valid concerns that local produces may take a beating on the arrival of cheaply produced foreign products, there is good reason to believe that local manufacturers are already being hurt by the current inflow of illegal goods. Either way, the market already exists; at the moment, however, that market is being exploited without regulation, or payment of customs fees.

Regional networking

There are other countries in the Stilwell equation besides Burma, India and China. Since participating as an original signatory to the 1999 Kunming Initiative and re-pledging itself to the process in 2002 when the meet was held in its capital, Bangladesh has been largely invisible in the Stilwell project. Many observers urge Dhaka to jump on the "Sino-India bandwagon", warning that a westward extension of the trade route to Calcutta would otherwise bypass the country through Siliguri. Notwithstanding perennial tensions between Dhaka and New Delhi, those critics maintain that fostering stronger ties with China is not only in Bangladesh's best interest, but that the opportunity has rarely been closer at hand as presented by Stilwell.

Thailand, on the other side of Burma, is particularly keen to increase trade relations with the Northeast and has expressed interest in seeing the Stilwell Road reopen. The country recently announced its intention to expand trade ties with the area, with a special focus on tea, fruit and food processing sectors; it is also actively looking into joint eco-tourism ventures in Assam.

The economic viability of increased trade between India, China, Burma and other Southeast Asian countries largely depends on the reopening of the most direct land routes connecting the countries. According to the Indian multinational Hindustan Lever, which actively trades with most ASEAN countries, the costs of container shipping of many products via sea routes from any part of India, in particular the Northeast, are prohibitively high.

If, as a result of reopening the Road, the Northeast were to become a major regional distribution centre, transit times and transportation costs between the partners could be reduced on average by an estimated 30 per cent. From the border point at Pansau in Arunachal Pradesh, exports from India shipped via the Road could reach Kunming in two days, Rangoon in less than three days, Bangkok in four days, and Singapore within six days. All this may sound fantastic and unreachable at the moment, but they are within the realm of possibility. The Stilwell route could lead to a snowballing of market linkage between India, China and Southeast Asia. Free trade agreements are already in place between India, Thailand and Singapore. Additional accords are due by 2016 with the rest of ASEAN countries, while similar discussions are starting with China. With all of this high-level trade talk, there should be little wonder that momentum has picked up towards creating an economically feasible way with which to move those goods and products that will need moving.

Down the road

Whether on the six-lane superhighway from Kunming to the Burmese border, the sometimes barely discernable track within Burma, or the bustling two-lane stretch in Assam, at the moment, travelling the Stilwell Road is an admittedly lively adventure. While that hair-raising excitement will have to be toned down to allow for a regular commercial flow, but make no mistake: emerging with the Road's new tarmac is a key to the continued transformation of Asia as a whole — linking Southasia, East Asia and Southeast Asia all at once. Although it was wartime Americans who brought the Road's original earthmoving machines, the effort to build the Road, the fighting that secured it, and the communities that have incorporated it have always been multinational. While it would be foolish to underestimate the geopolitical obstacles facing the push to reopen Stilwell, the simple fact is that the Road will inevitably come into greater use as India, Burma and China continue to become more economically powerful, independent, and intertwined. And with them, the rest of Asia.

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