Roads to East: Apprehensions and Alternatives

Though the Bangladesh, China, India, and Myanmar (BCIM) has great economic sense, it is a huge political risk. As a result, success of the Corridor depends a lot on the political leadership and their commitment by both China and India.


Any news related to China and India make global headlines. The conceptualization of the Bangladesh, China, India, and Myanmar (BCIM) economic corridor grabbed international headlines and rightly so because two largest and fastest growing economies are planning to be connected through an economic corridor passing through Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Initially, China and India were quite ambitious about the project. But more than them, Myanmar and Bangladesh were seeing development of BCIM to take millions of people in the region out of poverty as this wish push huge economic activities. There have been a range of acOn the occasion of the 11th BCIM (Acronym of Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar) forum meeting, held in Dhaka on 23-24 February 2013, a car rally from Kolkata to Kunming was flagged off. The initiative has ambitions of Indo-China road connectivity passing through Bangladesh and Myanmar. In the pattern of ASEAN-India car rally, the rally followed the route through Dhaka, Silchar (Assam), Imphal (Manipur) and Mandalay and Ruili (Yunnan). But this long route has been explored for BCIM as an alternate to Ledo road.

Northeast in India could be the really gainer through the initiative as it is the region which has been neglected for years. Ledo is a small town in Tinsukia district of Assam. From Ledo, Ledo Road popularly known as Stilwell Road has connectivity between India and China, constructed during World War II and now in a fragile and inactive condition. The road itself is now a strategic issue in regional connectivity. The issues associated with these questions resulted in exploring the other alternative. Precisely, strategic apprehensions and technical problems along the Ledo road are among the major issues.

Answering the questions related to Ledo Road is complex which covers both strategic and technical conditions in the area. It is therefore, exploring opportunities for re-opening the Ledo road has apprehensions associated with it. Alternate to the route of the car rally is Kolkata-Guwahati via Bangladesh to Ledo. The road condition and associated strategic issues never attracted connectivity plan through the route. And most important deterrent is strategic fear from Indian side.

In the National Development Council meeting held in Delhi in December last year, the Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh urged for re-opening the route for trade under the ambit of vibrating India’s Look East Policy. He persuaded the idea and stated that “most of the 1,726-km road is now in a usable condition and only about 160 km in Myanmar needs renovation”.

While Chinese side of the road is developed into six lanes, the route from Bhamo to Ledo requires to be developed on this pattern.

Is India worried about BCIM?

India has largely settled its land issues with Bangladesh but there are still huge land border settlement issues with two countries – China and Pakistan. India’s most prominent apprehension is Chinese territorial claim on Arunachal Pradesh. In addition, India’s stand is also affected by the competitive nature of geopolitics between India and China. In view of this, the main dispute is McMohan Line which was never accepted by the Chinese government. Later, a legal status of Line of Actual Control by both the countries brought optimism and a ray of hope to reinforce peace and stability in the region. However, occasional claims by the Chinese over Arunachal Pradesh ingeminated India’s apprehensions. As a result, India chose not to go to rejuvenating connectivity through disputed territorial areas which also include Ledo Road for India-China connectivity programmes.

India has been, therefore, closely watching the re-building process of this road in Myanmar. Since connectivity in the Northeast region particularly in Arunachal Pradesh is in abysmal condition, it is also believed that India should establish transport infrastructure before going for opening border trade through the area. It is therefore, facilitation of infrastructure projects in Arunachal Pradesh is on priority.

Most of the territory in Arunachal Pradesh is spread on mountainous ranges and forests. Road connectivity in the state needs to be sliced through these mountains. Moreover, as a less accessible region, the state is considered an asylum to major insurgents. It is also claimed that Arunachal Pradesh is frequently used as a transit route by the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) to reach Sagaing region in Myanmar. Rebel movements on Ledo road, which has Tirap-Changlang corridor, are another reason for India’s worry.

The corridor has also been highlighted by the Home Ministry Consultative Committee on Security in the Northeast. A recently held meeting of the committee, exclusively pointed out that Arunachal Pradesh largely remains peaceful except this corridor which has presence of National Socialist Council of Nagaland. The physical characteristics of the corridor help seek hideouts by insurgents from the region particularly from Assam. In addition, India has been regularly claiming Chinese support to Indian insurgents in the area.

Nevertheless, hope of peace is concurrently rehabilitated by India through inviting ULFA for tripartite meeting with the official of Ministry of Home Affairs, India. It is also believed that the victorious regional party i.e. Naga People’s Front in Nagaland would work as catalyst to maintain peace and ceasefire in Naga populated areas. Such progress of peace and settlement would further open a window to re-open the Ledo Road.

Looking East through Northeast

 Under the above scenario, the BCIM connectivity via Ledo road remains far from reality. In the meantime India has launched Trans Arunachal connectivity project known as Trans Arunachal Highway. The project is likely to connect the 11 district headquarters of the state with two lanes roads.  The project has accommodated bridges across Brahmaputra River in Assam to connect Arunachal Pradesh with main land roads. Of course, the project is underway. This project has the potential to integrate the region and to further initiatives relevant to India’s Look East policy.

India’s vision for Look East Policy has started accommodating Northeastern region for facilitating connectivity from India to ASEAN. As a result of gradual development process of infrastructure facilities in Northeast India, the skeptical ethos for Northeast in New Delhi has also been outshined by the idea of Asian regionalism. Some of the proponents of Look East Policy have also coined the idea of “Looking East through Northeast”. This perspective, of course, has prospects which can lead to the revival of Ledo road.

How Does the Future Look Like?

According to a research by Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS), BCIM has the trade potential of a whopping $132 billion. The corridor would cover 1.65 million square kilometres and connects the lives of 44 crore people. Moreover, it would facilitate trade and investment, increase people-to-people contact and reduce poverty through better cross-border connectivity. Intra subregional investment would bring trade balance and develop regional value chains.

Though BCIM has great economic sense, it is a huge risk politically. Thus, success of the Corridor depends a lot on the political leadership of both China and India. Moreover, China’s aggressive move towards implementing China-Pakistan Economic Corridor would be a huge blow to the progress of BCIM. However, patience and dialogues are integral part of foreign policy. So more time and money need to be invested in dialogues, discussions and negotiations.