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POLITICS: China, India Reopen Himalayan Trade Route

Jigme Kazi

NATHU LA, Sikkim, Jul 7 2006 (IPS) - In a sign that they were putting more than four decades of bitter relations behind them, Asian giants India and China, this week, reopened an ancient cross-border trade route over this misty, wind-swept pass across the high Himalayas.

”We are restoring a connection between our two ancient civilizations,” said Pawan Kumar Chamling, chief minister of eastern Sikkim state, as he declared open the route on Thursday.

Local businessmen, gathered for the crossing, recalled a time when they regularly ferried goods back and forth across the 4,310 metre pass, using mule trains, until the bloody 1962 Sino-Indian border war brought the trade to an abrupt halt.

But, it was left to Chamling and the Beijing-appointed leader of Tibet, Champa Phuntsok, to shake hands and cut a red ribbon, marking the essentially local character of an event that many, nevertheless, believe could grow into a major breakthrough for a vast, landlocked region around the eastern Himalayas, best-known for including Mt Everest, the world’s tallest peak.

“The opening of the border pass at Nathu La after 44 years marks the beginning of a new era in Sino-Indian relations,” Phuntsok said. “I hope the border people of these two great nations will benefit from this,” he said, referring to the limited scope, ascribed officially, to the event.

Relations between India and China were souring even before the 1962 hostilites, not only because of the boundary dispute along the 3,500 km frontier but also because India had chosen to give asylum to Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and let him to set up a government-in-exile on Indian soil.

No one knows for sure but it could not have been a coincidence that Thursday also happened to be the birthday of the Dalai Lama, who runs his government from Dharamsala in the north-western state of Himachal Pradesh.

Although the issues of the border and the status of the Dalai Lama are still alive, the world’s two most populous countries have, impelled by a desire for economic growth, begun to see the larger picture. In June 2003, India officially and finally accepted Tibet as an integral part of China and in return Beijing conceded that Sikkim, formerly Lamaist Buddhist kingdom of Sikkim till 1975, is indeed a part of the Indian union.

Because Nathu La provides the easiest overland route to the ‘Roof of the World’, few would fail to see a link between Thursday’s ceremonies at the border and the arrival in Lhasa of the first train from Beijing, earlier in the week.

The Chinese government has already announced that the railway would soon be extended further south to Xigatse (the traditional home of the Panchen Lamas, a parallel line to the Dalai Lamas) and on to the trading town of Yatung, where India maintained a trade commissioner’s office complete with telegraph lines until the 1962 war.

Indeed some of the traders who gathered at Nathu La on Thursday were carrying with them trade licences, bank pass books and identity cards issued by the Chinese government 45 years ago. Some still harbour hopes of regaining the shops and goods they hastily left behind as the Chinese army advanced and spilled over the border into Sikkim.

‘’We hope to reestablish our shops on the Tibetan side,” said Bhaskaranand Aggarwal who has prized film footage of the old mule-back trade in cotton, wool, tea, salt and textiles.

The new trade, at least for now, will be no different and will be limited to local businessmen based in Sikkim importing into India traditional items such as raw silk, livestock, wool and china clay.

A more enthusiastic and confident China has offered to import, through Nathu La, manufactured items such as bicycles, textiles, farm implements, shoes and agro-chemicals.

It will be some time before large-scale trade, traffic and tourist flows can take place, as envisaged by the two countries, though as if in anticipation, the machine-gun nests and barbed wire have been replaced by an Internet café, customs facilities and even an automatic teller machine (ATM).

‘’Eventually,” said Aggarwal, ‘’we hope that Nathu La well get to handle a portion of the 20 billion dollars worth of trade that now takes place between India and China.”

Karma Gyatso, secretary for commerce and industry in Sikkim, said he believed that trade through the pass could hit the three billion dollar mark by 2015 if restrictions on the kind and number of goods pouring through Nathu La can be relaxed. ‘’Logistics are a big advantage for trade between Tibetan Autonomous Region and Sikkim.”

‘’Despite expanded connectivity with China, Tibet will find it cheaper to buy a lot from India. Unchanging geography implies that Kolkata will always be the nearest port from Lhasa,” said the Indian Express newspaper in an editorial on Friday.

Indian academics see the opening of the Nathu La as symbolic event that could lead to a greater opening of a vast region that includes the countries of Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma as well as China’s booming Yunnan province.

‘’What is driving the new initiative is China’s new desire to open its landlocked western region and this is happening at a pace that has left India standing and flatfooted, despite making grand announcements about a ‘Look East’ policy,” said Prof. Ganganath Jha at the Jawaharalal Nehru University in New Delhi.

Jha said the only obstacle that now remains to railway travel between the port of Kolkata in the Bay of Bengal and Lhasa is a few hundred km of track that needs to be laid through Sikkim, a state which still does not have an airport or railhead. ‘’The greater obstacle is hesitation on the part of the Indian bureaucracy and the army,” said Jha.

According to Jha, the best answer to China’s economic expansion south of the Himalayas is to match it by boldly reestablishing its consulate at Lhasa and the trading post at Yatung. ‘’This is a time when the threat from China is more economic than military and it is for the Indian establishment to recognise this and respond to it.”

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