January 13, 2011

Stilwell Rd to be reborn

By Sudha Ramachandran


BANGALORE - Myanmar seems to have finally overcome its longstanding reluctance to reopening the historic Stilwell Road, which crosses the northwest of the country to link India with China.

Mahesh Saharia, chairperson of the Northeastern Initiative of the Indian Chamber of Commerce, describes the gains from the reopening of the Stilwell Road as "unimaginable".

The Myanmar government awarded a contract to rebuild a 312-kilometer stretch of the road running from Myitkyina in Myanmar

to Pangsau Pass on the India-Myanmar border to China's Yunnan Construction Engineering Group.

The award of the contract to a Chinese company is a setback to India in its battle with China for influence in Myanmar, but the renovation of the Myitkyina-Tanai-Pangsau Pass section of the road will benefit all three countries, indeed the wider region, immensely.

The reopening of the Stilwell road could cut by 30% the cost of transporting goods between India and China, providing a boost to Sino-Indian overland trade in a few years.

Originally termed the Ledo Road, the 1,736 km Stilwell Road was built during World War II from Ledo in Assam to Kunming so that the Western Allies could supply Chiang Kai-Shek's Kuomintang forces after another route had been cut by the Japanese in 1942. It was renamed after General Vinegar Joe Stilwell of the US Army in 1945.

It winds its way from Ledo in Assam through Jairampur and Nampong in Arunachal Pradesh until it reaches the Pangsau Pass (aka the "Hell Pass") where it crosses into Myanmar. The road then weaves through upper Myanmar to reach Myitkyina before turning eastward to China where it culminates at Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province. Roughly 61 km runs through India, 1,035 km through Myanmar and 640 km in China.

After the war, the road fell into disuse. The Indian northeast and much of the road's route through Myanmar were wracked by insurgencies. Myanmar's inward-looking policy and avoidance of contact with the outside world, as well as poor relations between India, Myanmar and China, meant that none of these countries used the road.

That has now changed. Relations between the three countries have improved significantly, resulting in a revival of interest in reopening the road. However, stretches of the road, especially in Myanmar, were in poor condition or simply no longer exist.

Agreement for the renovation of the Myitkyina-Tanai-Pangsau Pass was signed in November, according to the Indian Express. The project will be undertaken as a joint venture by Yunnan Construction and Myanmar's military-backed Yuzana Group.

Of the three countries, China has been most enthusiastic about reopening the road and Myanmar the least keen. Beijing has already renovated the stretch running through China and linked it the country's superhighway network. It has also been developing other infrastructure in Yunnan, where Kunming is an increasingly important industrial center, in order to maximize gains from trade once the Stilwell Road is reopened.

Since the road runs through the insurgency-wracked Kachin region over which Myanmar's military rulers have limited control, they have been reluctant to allow the road's opening, seeing it as likely to facilitate movement of insurgents.

With the award of the contract for repairing the Myitkyina-Pangsau Pass stretch, the last obstacle on the way to reopening the Stilwell road has been removed.

India was hoping to land the renovation project, particularly as Myanmar's rulers had raised the issue with New Delhi in 2008. The loss of the contract to China has evoked disappointment in Delhi, but India too will reap the benefits of the reopened road.

The two areas that the road will link - India's northeast and China's Yunnan - are both isolated, economically backward and landlocked and the trade the Stilwell road will encourage is likely to bring in its wake economic development to these regions.

Partition of the sub-continent in 1947, severing what is now Bangladesh from India, deprived the northeast of access to its nearest port, Chittagong. Sixty years on, the region's access to the sea is about 1,600 km away - overland via a poor road and rail network and through the narrow Siliguri Corridor to Kolkata port. Goods from India's northeast headed for China or Southeast Asian countries are at present shipped via Kolkata through the Strait of Malacca and on to China.

"It takes seven days for cargo to move by road from the northeast to Kolkata, then around three to four weeks to move by sea to China," said Saharia. Cargo from the northeast transported along the Stilwell Road could reach Yunnan in less than two days.

The Stilwell Road could emerge as a preferred route for transporting goods to China from other parts of India too, given the short distance to Yunnan.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao during a visit to India in December said "The world is undergoing major development and changes, we should seize the opportunity and lose no time in deepening our ties."

During his visit, the countries set a new bilateral trade target of $100 billion by 2015 from the 2009-10 level of around $60 billion. At present there is a $19 billion balance in China's favor. Even if a fraction of this trade were to take place through the Stilwell Road it has the potential to improve the economies of regions en route.

Other routes run from the northeast India through Myanmar to Southeast Asia, including the Moreh-Tamu road, which links Manipur with Myanmar. India's National Highway 39, which runs from Numaligarh in Assam through Nagaland links up with this road at Moreh. The expectations of the Moreh-Tamu road have, however, not been realized as this road is closed for at least a third of the year due to strikes and civil unrest.

Construction on the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project is reported to have begun late last month. The project envisages connecting the northeastern state of Mizoram with the Bay of Bengal and is expected to be completed by 2013, giving goods from India's landlocked northeast access to the sea.

The project involves constructing roads linking Mizoram with Kaletwa in Myanmar, development of the Kaladan River as a waterway and improving the infrastructure of the port at Sittwe, capital of Myanmar's Arakan province and the point where the Kaladan River empties into the Bay of Bengal.

Thus goods from the northeast can be transported by road and river to Sittwe port from where it can be moved by sea to other Southeast Asian countries. Sittwe's importance as a port will also grow as it serves as a center for development of offshore gas fields in the area and terminal for a gas pipeline planned to run north to China.

India had been eyeing Sittwe port for several reasons, sea access for cargo from the northeast being one. Indian interest in Sittwe was also particularly high as relations with Bangladesh have at times been poor and Dhaka was reluctant to give Indian goods access to its Chittagong port.

Relations with Bangladesh have improved substantially over the past two years and Dhaka has expressed interest in allowing India to use Chittagong port as another outlet for its goods.

Access to Chittagong will no doubt reduce the commercial importance of Sittwe to India. But Sittwe has strategic importance for India as well. Besides, access to road, rail and other outlets in more countries is good for trade, Saharia said, pointing out that this “will reduce India's dependence on one country.”

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.

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