05/19/2007, 00.00
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Pressure to rebuild Stilwell Road, from Assam to Yunnan

1.736 kilometres long, the road was built during Second World War by the allies to bring supplies to China at war with Japanese invaders. Today it would save time and money in transporting goods from North East India to China and South East Asia. But Political problems block the way.

New Delhi (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Industrial groups from India and China are pressing to have a 1.736 kilometre road which connects Ledo in (North East India) to Kunming, capital of Yunnan, passing through Myanmar. But political divisions will first have to resolved rather than technical ones.

Goods from India's northeast headed for China or Southeast Asian countries are currently shipped via Kolkata, the nearest port, through the Strait of Malacca and on to China. It takes at least a couple of weeks for goods to reach China.  "If they go via the Stilwell Road our goods would reach Yunnan in two days," said Pradyut Bordoloi, Assam's commerce and industries minister. It would reduce transport costs by more than 30%.   The Stilwell Road will link north-eastern India not just with Yunnan but with other parts of China and Southeast Asia as well. Beijing has already constructed a network of roads connecting Yunnan with other provinces.

The project could also favour the development of northeast India and bordering states, which are immersed in poverty. Ninety-eight percent of the northeast's borders are with other countries, and only 2% with India. Yet this region's trade with other countries is minuscule, limited to informal trade. Experts say that even if 10% of India's shipment to China and Southeast Asia were to be routed through the Stilwell Road, its impact on the northeast would be dramatic.  

61km of the Stilwell Road runs through India, 1,035km through Myanmar and 640km into China.  It was a vital lifeline for the Allies during the war, as it was through this road that supplies were sent to the Chinese battling Japanese occupation. But within a few months of its opening, the Japanese surrendered and the war ended. After the war, the road fell into disuse.

Many parts of the Stilwell Road –which crosses thick jungle - no longer exist or are dirt track.

Yet the greatest obstacles are proving to be political rather than technical. Relations between India and China, which have been hostile for decades, have only in recent years begun to warm slowly. India's relations with Myanmar have also not been warm. Bureaucracies and military issues in all three countries are standing in the way. Beijing has in fact already transformed its stretch of the road into a modern six-lane expressway. But officials in New Delhi say India has “security concerns”: The northeast is an insurgency-racked region and there are "valid fears" that the road would facilitate movement of insurgents, arms and drugs. Then there is the concern that reopening the road would result in the Chinese swamping the northeast with cheap goods, undermining the local economy. These concerns are roundly rejected by north easterners as "unfounded, who point out that the goods will trade both ways.

But experts studying the project say that Myanmar is the linchpin of the project. This is partly because of the military junta's traditional wariness of opening the country to outsiders and because the area to be crossed is controlled by rebels from the Kachin ethnic group.


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