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Silk Route' to Boost Indo-China Bilateral Trade

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 2003/08/01; August 1, 2003.]

The Independent Bangladesh
Thu 31 Jul 2003

High drama connected with the opening of Nathu Lal pass, 14,000 feet above seal level, in Sikkim for border trade between India and China trade has triggered euphoric effects upon all sections of people in the eastern part of India, particularly Sikkim. Optimism surrounding the century-old 'Silk Route', i.e., Nathu La, suspended since 1962, is a contiguous one.

No wonder then that the proposed opening of the trading outpost got round of applause from trade and commerce circles. The effects this agreement after 41 years between India and China on June 3, 2003 at Beijing during the visit of the Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee rekindled fresh hope and optimism in trade circles. Its reverberation is easily discernible in Gangtok and Kolkata.

Though the Prime Minister Vajpayee told the members on the floor of the Parliament on Tuesday that the memorandum of understanding on border trade through the Nathu-La in Sikkim was very significant development. He said: "With this. we have also started the process by which Sikkim will cease to be an issue in India-China relations".

Even then, the critics are not satisfied. Political commentators were found pinpointing several flaws in the argument on the decision to open border trade via Nathu La, tantamounting to recognition of Sikkim as part of India. A commentator observed, "India made a hash of the Sikkim matter, turning it into a public issue for the first time ever.

Meanwhile, a report in a national daily - The Asian Age - cleared the cobweb somewhat when it said that China has since decided to "change its official maps in 2004 and show Sikkim as a part of India. This will be the first time that China has formally accepted any Indian claim on the long and historically disputed border with India."

Commenting on this change of approach, a China observer said, "formal change of maps will seal the commitment implicit in the trade agreement signed in Beijing during" the Indian Prime Minister's visit in June last. The agreement stipulated that border trade would be "conducted through Chhangu in Sikkim". Chhangu, presently a tourist spot with a beautiful lake surrounded on all sides by snow capped the eastern Himalayas, is located about 12 kilometers down from Nathu La.

Economic experts see that the inking trade agreement between India and China during the Indian Prime Minister's six-day visit to Beijing via Nathu La as "landmark for ushering in regional development in eastern South Asia". The eastern India, which is suffering from "unprecedented" illegal border trade for long time, would kick start the flagging economy of this part of south Asia. China is likely to have easy access to all the countries in this part of Asia.

An economic analyst remarked that with the implementation of the Asia Road through South Asia to Southeast Asia, the Nathu La route "could well create a new trade bloc in Asia outside the Association of Southeast Asian Nations". ".opening of this strategic pass has paved the way for unprecedented economic development in the region, which includes Greater Mekong region of Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand.Bangladesh, and the Yunnan province in China. The Nathu La will provide the key access to develop that trade block", said the secretary general of the Indian Chamber of Commerce to a newsweekly.

Nathu La is likely to play a very important role in increasing border trade between China and South and Southeast Asian countries. Interesting to note that China has already emerged as the major investor in this part of the world. An observer said, Nathu-La would also Bangladesh's port at Chittagong. With the opening of the Jamuna Bridge, the direct road link from Nathu-La to Chittagong via Siliguri would open a new vista of land trade between China and Bangladesh.

By utilising an existing 431 km all-weather road between Lhasa and Gangtok, China could flood this part of Asia by cheap manufactured products. In this instance, it can profitably utilize the services of two international seaports - Chittagong in Bangladesh and Rangoon in Myanmar - besides Kolkata-Haldia (about 1,100km) port system. Since China is most friendly with Bangladesh and Myanmar, it can use their facilities to best of its advantage.

An economic expert said: "It will cost Beijing less to transport goods from its eastern and southern shores to Tibet through the all weather ports in the Bay of Bengal. Kolkata and Chittagong were only 1,000 kilometers plus. A study sponsored by the Asian Development Bank said greater trade with South and Southeast Asia would increase the turnover of this region's economy by at least by five times.

The catch is Beijing's reluctance to recognise Sikkim as part of India has reinforced widely prevalent skepticism about the former's political intention towards New Delhi. Once this thorny (?) question is resolved, rapidly expanding trade between these two Asian countries, which has crossed $ 5 billions mark recently, border trade is likely to shoot up to new plane.

From unrecorded time, the trade between India and China via Lhasa in Tibet was carried out through four passes in the Himalayas including Nathu La in Sikkim and Jelep La (58km) at Kalimpong in West Bengal. It continued unabated until early 1960 under the watchful eyes of an Indian consulate at Lhasa and Chinese commercial mission at Kalimpong in West Bengal. Other two passes are located at Lipu Lekh pass, used sparingly, and Dharma Pass, for pilgrims' movement to the Manasarovar, in Uttaranchal state of India.

In this respect Nathu La is much advanced. Absence of first-class communication link in this sector may hamper large-scale trade via this route at present. But in comparison to Jelep La, Lipu Lekh and Dharma Pass, Nathu La is much better.

It is learnt that on Tibet side, China is much ahead in this sector. It has build up a four-lane all weather roads connecting Lhasa with Gangtok that is 425 km southeast from the Tibet capital.

In India, some fortuitous circumstances propelled the Central Surface transport ministry to initiate some planning to convert the present two-lane Gangtok-Siliguri (125km) National Highway 31A to a four-lane road, and from Gangtok to Nathu La (52km) - one to four-lane highway. Once implemented, the highway would eliminate road communication bottlenecks in this route.

Simultaneously, an alternate route from Teesta to Singtam is also given due consideration by the Central Surface Transport ministry.

Not trade alone, the Nathu-La route also could open a new chapter on tourism. Already, Sikkim Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling stressed this aspect when he said: "If buses can run between Lahore and Delhi and between Kolkata and Dhaka, why not a road services between Sikkim and Tibet along the Silk Route through the Nathula Pass?"

West Bengal government also wanted to utilise this new development. It hoped fresh investments in the communist state of India. Interestingly, the Confederation of Indian Industry, an apex body of Indian industrialists and commerce, urged the state government to make best use of the Nathu La development. With the CII opening its new representation office in Shanghai in China, the chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacherjee felt that it "could act as a catalyst in cementing trade ties with China".

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