Overgrown and disused for much of the last 60 years, a ghost road that connects India to China via Burma will soon reappear on maps of the region.
Dismissed by Winston Churchill as a “laborious task, unlikely to be finished until the need for it has passed”, the construction of the road claimed the lives of 1,100 US servicemen and many more local labourers during the second world war.
But when a convoy led by US General Joseph W. Stilwell in February 1945 completed the journey from Indian Assam to Kunming, capital of China’s Yunnan province, it helped bust a three-year Japanese land and sea blockade of China and hastened the end of the war.
Its military purpose served, the road rapidly deteriorated, disappearing altogether in parts of Burma.
Six decades later, the road is again the scene of a race against time. As India and China vie for influence in Burma while seeking to boost their own bilateral trade, Asia’s two emerging economic giants are restoring the historic highway.
This helps to explain why India and China have been reluctant to condemn Burma’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, while the international community has set about trying to punish the military junta.
Although India was critical of a previous Burmese crackdown in 1988, it began to reverse policy in the early 1990s, judging that its moralising had been counter-productive and was adversely affecting national security interests by pushing the junta into China’s arms.
China has already converted its own 680km stretch into a six-lane highway and is helping to rebuild much of the road inside Burma. India is further behind, expecting to complete the transformation of a single-lane track ridden with pot-holes into a two-lane highway by March.
New Delhi, keen to connect India’s insurgency-ridden north-east with the fast-growing markets of south-west China and south-east Asia, is also expected to help build part of the 1,000km-long Burmese section.
“There is hardly any traffic on the road, but this will change,” says Ganga Sharma, a businessman who owns two small trucks and is hoping for increased cross-border trade through the nearby Pangsau Pass, now limited to fortnightly fairs.
The $30m (£14.6m, €21m) Stilwell Road project is just one of the infrastructure projects that will soon span the 1,880km Indo-Burmese border. The most important is the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Facility, which will allow goods to be sent from India’s landlocked north-east down the Kaladan river to Burma’s Sitwe port.
BSNL and TCIL, two state-owned Indian telecoms groups, are planning fibre optic cable links connecting India’s north-eastern state of Manipur with Burma, and beyond to Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.
Efforts are also under way to create a rail link through Burma from Jiribham in Assam to Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital. A “trilateral” highway project proposes to connect the city of Morer in Manipur to Mae Sot in Thailand – again via Burma.
“By gradually integrating this region [with south-east and east Asia] through cross-border market access, the north-eastern states can become the bridge between the Indian economy and what is beyond doubt the fastest-growing and dynamic region in the world,” Pranab Mukherjee, India’s foreign minister, told a recent seminar.
India’s efforts to develop the north-east have been spurred by China’s rapid rise and an outstanding territorial dispute over part of an area cut off from mainland India by the creation of Bangladesh in 1947.
But after a humiliating defeat to China in border conflicts in 1962, India has belatedly realised that the best way of securing the north-east is through its development.
There is much to do. Per capita incomes in India’s north-eastern states are nearly 30 per cent lower than in the rest of the country and the 12 per cent unemployment rate is nearly twice the national rate. Poverty and unemployment have also driven the spread of separatist groups in the area.
Mani Shankar Aiyar, India’s minister for the north-east region, sees Beijing’s concerted development of its south-west, once the poorest region in China, and the history of the Stilwell road as an inspiration: “If the Japanese could be defeated because you are able to link Assam with south-west China, can’t we defeat the Japanese once again in the economic race by linking the north-east region with south-west China?”