India appears divided over whether or not to reopen the World War II-era Stilwell Road for trade with China, as potential commercial benefits are weighed against national security concerns.
Retired Gen J.J. Singh, former chief of India’s army and now governor of the frontier state of Arunachal Pradesh, has strongly pushed for the road’s reconstruction. He argues that it should be opened to enable trade and traffic with Burma and China.
“China has developed its part of the road. They are helping Myanmar develop its bit of the road as well. So there is no point in India not developing its own part of the road,” Singh said recently while addressing a conference on India’s “Look East” policy at the National University of Singapore.
Singh, whose state hosts about 27 km of the old road, says his logic is simple: Only 61 km of the historical road passes through India, so it does not really matter whether India reopens the road or not. Chinese goods and people will be able to reach the Indian border in any case once the Burmese part of the road is opened.
India has been reluctant to open the Stilwell Road due to both military and commercial considerations.
Indian generals fear that it could be an “asset” for the Chinese in the event of a war between the two Asian giants.
In November last year, retired Lt-Gen J.R. Mukherji opposed the opening of the Stilwell Road at a conference in Calcutta.
A former chief of staff of India’s eastern command, Mukherji stressed that the road would give the Chinese an advantage in the event of armed conflict.
Many other military commanders support Mukherji’s assessment and say the Chinese could use the road to move troops and supplies, slicing through India’s defenses in Arunachal Pradesh if war were to break out.
Indian commerce ministry officials fear that the Stilwell Road could be used by the Chinese to dump their goods into India’s northeast.
When completed by the Western Allies in 1944, the 1,726-km road was seen as a lifeline to China in the war against Japan, keeping Gen Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist army supplied.
It was originally called the Ledo Road, after the small town in the Indian state of Assam at which it begins. Later it was renamed after the American Gen Joseph Stilwell, who had pushed for its construction.
Wartime records indicate that 15,000 American soldiers and 35,000 local workers were used to build the road through daunting mountainous terrain and malaria-ridden forests at a cost of $150 million. More than 1,000 Americans and many more locals died during the construction of the road, which terminated at Kunming in China’s Yunnan province.
While China has upgraded its part of the Stilwell Road into a highway that can easily handle modern container traffic, Burma is now renovating its part of the road, with the work farmed out to a Chinese company.
The Indian part of the road has gone to seed, especially a stretch from Jairampur to Pangsau Pass.
Much of the road has been swallowed up by jungle, barely negotiable on foot. Ethnic insurgents active in the area make passage dangerous.
Local border trade takes place with Burmese traders who are allowed to sell their products at a bazaar on the Indian side two days a week. Indian traders are also allowed to sell their products on the Burmese side two days a week.
Officials of the Assam Rifles paramilitary force, which guards the border with Burma, say local products are traded at these bazaars.
Local politicians, citizens’ groups and businesspeople in India’s northeast have been upbeat about proposals to revive the Stilwell Road by the Burma government, which came to power in 2010.
It is rebuilding the 312-km stretch of the road from Myitkyina in Burma’s northern Kachin State to the Pangsau Pass, nicknamed “Hell’s Pass,” on the border with India’s Changlang
district of Arunachal Pradesh.
This section of the road remains in poor condition, though the road from Myitkyina to the
Chinese border is passable.
Studies by the Indian Chamber of Commerce earlier in the decade indicated that trade via a renovated Stilwell Road could cut down up to 30 percent of transportation costs for goods shipped between India and China.
“Major production hubs can come up in northeast India and northern Myanmar if this road is opened. That will change the economy of the area,” says Nazeeb Arif, a former secretary general of the Indian Chamber of Commerce. “This is the only surface link between India and China capable of taking a substantial volume of the growing bilateral trade.”
But with policy makers in Delhi ambivalent and opinions still divided, it may be a while before the vintage road is fully open to trade and human traffic between the two Asian giants.