New roads have opened between India and China. These physical links have transformed old boundaries to establish, in many border areas and contiguous regions especially, a fresh spirit of collaboration. In lands where populations are often sparse, messages of success can travel far.
For all of modern history the two countries have been sharply separated by the geography—figurative as much as physical—of the Himalayas. Each towering watershed of competing interests is regarded from two sides with distinctive ideologies. Now that the sobriety of necessary leadership and the inescapable connectedness of modern commerce have forced many old animosities to retreat, the economic advantages might be mutually distributed.
China is now India’s first trading partner, following several decades of Russia, then America in that role. Shared achievements are increasing between the world’s foremost factory and what is rapidly becoming its largest office services site. One vivid result of the natural encounter of these parallel forces of progress is the reopening of the frontier roads.
Following the long-awaited resumption of Beijing-Delhi flights only a few years ago, land transportation now has its hour. The Indian Government has decided to improve the legendary Stilwell Road that joins India and China through Myanmar (formerly Burma). Built as a sturdy passage for trucks, it was named for the American general who directed its construction during World War II. It offered the only land connection between India and China, then engaged in resisting Japan. Originating in Bengal, the road crossed Annam state in India, then through Myanmar, eventually ending at Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province. With the exception of its reach into China, it was entirely in the British Empire’s dominions of the day. Today it spans 61 km in India, 1,000 across Myanmar and 600 within China. Yangon (Rangoon) is charged with the restoration and maintenance of the road, so that it remains open year-round regardless of seasonal monsoon challenges and often troublesome terrain. In its sweep through Chinese territory, the Stilwell Road was converted years ago to a six-lane highway.
The three-nation project includes the ambitious expectation to reopen the old Southern Silk Road, which will allow bi-directional movement of goods, people and ideas. The original Stilwell Road traced a centuries-old path used by merchants and monks. Today it serves tourists and entrepreneurs. Southern China and northwestern India are among the poorest areas of the two countries and reestablishment of the road as a modern thoroughfare will foster fresh development, trade and valuable social exchanges. Because of the elevation of the Karakorum and Himalayas, the road now offers the most convenient navigation across the vast terrain of the region—more accessible than other frontiers where passages are perilous and the absence of settlements forbidding.
The reopening of the Nathu Pass, which joins the Indian state of Sikkim to Tibet, was greeted just five years ago as a political breakthrough. Where the idea of unfettered travel had invoked political anxiety, we now have rising employment and improved support for travelers. Thanks to today’s global markets, increasing flows of grains, animal products and medicines are now actively traded and long-isolated village economies are able to flourish. Where troops were once stationed in forbidding mountain outposts, tourists and entrepreneurs move freely between worlds that geography long held apart.
Once-sketchy trade statistics have begun to resemble those of mainstream economies. The health care and education that rising living standards bring to these persistently poor regions help to overcome traditional fears and suspicions. And so the reopening of these roads is a talisman, ancient and modern, for the broader and richer improvement of relations between the two countries. Two Asian giants thus shape many reciprocal advantages into a counterpoint to natural rivalry. The daily hum of traffic transports civilization across wilderness, and wealth to lands that want to share in it.