Kibithoo Can Be Configured as an Entrepôt in Indo-China Border Trade

Borders are the gateway to growth and development in the trajectory of contemporary economic diplomacy. They provide a new mode of interaction which entails de-territorialised economic cooperation and free trade architecture, thereby making the spatial domain of territory secondary in the global economic relations. Taking a cue from this, both India and China looked ahead to revive their old trade routes in order to restore cross-border ties traversing beyond their political boundaries.

Borders are the gateway to growth and development in the trajectory of contemporary economic diplomacy. They provide a new mode of interaction which entails de-territorialised economic cooperation and free trade architecture, thereby making the spatial domain of territory secondary in the global economic relations. Taking a cue from this, both India and China looked ahead to revive their old trade routes in order to restore cross-border ties traversing beyond their political boundaries.

The reopening of the Nathula trade route in 2016 was realised as a catalyst in generating trust and confidence between India and China. Subsequently, the success of Nathula propelled the academia, policymakers and the civil society to rethink the model in the perspective of Arunachal Pradesh as well. So, the question that automatically arises here is: Should we apply this cross-border model in building up any entrepôt in Arunachal Pradesh? The response is positive and corroborated by my field interactions at the ground level. In this context, Kibithoo (it is the eastern-most administrative circle of India falling under Anjaw district of Arunachal Pradesh at the Indo-China border), which has immense potentiality, is configured as an entrepôt in the Indo-China border trade based on historical relevance as well as geo-economic and strategic considerations. 

Historical Context 

Kibithoo was a natural passage between Tibet and India’s North East Frontier Tract[1] during the British colonial period. The historic presence of the region indicated that Mishmi tribes of upper Lohit had regular trade links with the Zayul district of Tibet. The Mishmis  carried musk ponds, hides, skins, furs, Mishmi coats, loincloths, barks and roots for dyes and drugs-getheon (an odoriferous root), manjeet (madder) and Mishmi teeta in lieu of cattle, brass-pipes, gongs, woolen goods, copper vessels and beads for ornaments from Tibet. Similarly, Tibetans also paid regular visits to Lohit to procure and barter their goods with the Mishmis, Zakhrings and Meyors (Gazetteer of India 1978). It was quite well known that other tribes such as Monpas, Nyishis, Galos, Adis, Mishmis, Membas and Khembas living in the North Eastern Frontier Tract had also booming trade relations with Tibet. 

Table 1: Number of Indian and Tibetan traders who crossed the border from 1958 to 1960 and the value of merchandise brought by them through the Kibithoo-Rima trade route                                                          

 

1958

1959

1960

 

Number  of Indian traders

184

319

259

 

Who crossed the border

       

Number of Tibetan traders 

243

414

217

 

Who crossed the border

       

Value of merchandise brought

2144

9030

6763

 

Into Tibet by the Indian traders (In Rupees)

       

Value of merchandise brought

3754

11034

7523

 

 

Source: Gazetteer of Arunachal Pradesh: Lohit District, Government of Arunachal Pradesh, 1978.

The 1962 war brought fissures in Sino–Indian relations and as a consequence, cross-border trade went down. Changing contours of global economic order in the recent past indicate that India and China may accord primacy to free trade and connectivity, thereby making the territorial space secondary in their bilateralism. In this context, the reopening of the Kibithoo route was thought necessary in order to establish the old ties and reconnect the lost linkages. I interviewed some locals, bureaucrats and experts to elicit views on cross-border trade at Tezu, headquarters of Lohit district on 16 February 2016.

Shantanu Kri, chief editor of a local weekly, The Lohit Mirror observed[2]:

“It is time to open the curtain. The reopening of Kibithoo route shall not only enhance the economic cooperation between the two neighbours but it shall provide an opportunity to both sides to understand the social, political and cultural values of the people more passionately. It might also pave the way to improve mutual trust between the two countries. India and China are the world’s most populated nations. Both of them are beset with inherent problems like unemployment, poverty, inequality illiteracy and poor health care in their respective borderlands. Opening the borders for trade could be an important tool to alleviate poverty in the underdeveloped regions of both the borderlands.”  

 


Courtesy: Map of Border Trade Locations, Government of Arunachal Pradesh.[3]  

Geoeconomic Importance 

Kibithoo is important from a geoeconomic perspective, since it is placed well in the Himalayan mountain range. It is situated at an altitude of 4,070 feet above sea level as compared to Nathula Pass which lies at an altitude of 14,400 feet above sea level. Even in Arunachal Pradesh, the low-elevated mountain range of Kibithoo enjoys geoeconomic advantages over Bumla, Taksing, Mechuka, Monigong and Gelling and can be developed as an all-weather road corridor to Tibet Autonomous Region, Sichuan and Yunnan of China.[4]

Kibithoo provides access to Tibet and also the Yunnan, giving it an edge over Nathula Pass, and reduces the distance to Kunming, which is at the heart of China’s southward bridgehead stratagem.[5] 

India and China should at first develop Kibithoo–Kunming highways and then undertake developing Stilwell Road (Ledo-Nampong–Shindbwiyang-Bhamo–Muse-Ruili and Kunming) and BCIM Highways (Kolkata-Dhaka-Sylhet-Silchar-Moreh-Tamu-Mandalay-Muse–Ruili and Kunming). India should expand multiple trade routes along different highways in order to tap the south-western and western Chinese markets.  Kibithoo as an entrepôt would be more beneficial in terms of land connectivity corridors as compared to the Stilwell road.[6]

If the Kibithoo project is taken up, it could provide shorter and faster access to the Indian industries to tap the south–western and south–eastern Chinese markets, creating adequate space for the emergence of industrial clusters, that is, Guwahati-Tezpur-Jorhat-Dibrugarh-Tinsukia-Digboi-Margherita in Assam; Dimapur, Kohima and Mokokchung in Nagaland  and Itanagar–Ruksin–Pashighat–Roing–Tezu–Hawai in Arunachal Pradesh. 

Lieutenant General John Mukherjee (Rtd) of the Eastern Command, said,[7] “Tezu–Hayuliang–Walong–Dichhu pass–Rima is the shortest route to mainland China and offers tremendous potential to ‘Act East’ (Pattnaik 2016) for the entire region provided the Indian Government wishes to do so.” Portraying a comparative perspective, he observed, “The Stilwell Road has only limited potential and that too only with Myanmar—there is also the necessity to resolve the insurgency on both the Indian and Myanmar sides of the border failing which movement would not be feasible. Further, the Government needs to open Bomdila, Asafila/Longju, Manigong, and Gelling routes for cross border trade in due course of time. The bottle neck to opening the routes is the bad relations with China, border disputes and permission of both Governments.” 

Kibithoo as an entrepôt would provide easy access to National Waterway II[8](Sadiya-Pandu-Dhubri) route on the Brahmaputra river and the latter would be highly beneficial in terms of cost efficiency for the movement of cargo and coverage of distance as compared to the  road corridors. Sadiya is only 345 kilometres (km) from Kibithoo and the cargo from Lower as well as Upper Assam can be trans-shipped through Dhubri–Pandu–Sadiya inland route and then be transported through Tezu–Hayuliang–Walong–Kibithoo land route on its way to Rima, Chengdu and Kunming in China. India’s longest road bridge Saikhowa–Sadiya is likely to be beneficial in terms of cross-border trade with China.[9]  India’s country’s longest rail and road bridge, the Bogibeel[10] would also prove to be a catalyst for cross-border trade reinforcing the pace of inter-state connectivity between Upper Assam and Arunachal Pradesh through the ongoing Trans-Arunachal Highways[11].  


Pandu Port, Guwahati. Image Courtesy: Jajati K Pattnaik.


 Steamers at Pandu Port, Guwahati. Image Courtesy: Jajati K Pattnaik.

 


 Source: SARDP-NE (Arunachal Pradesh), Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region (MDONER), Government of India.[12]


Road to sadiaghat from Tezu. Image Courtesy: Jajati K Pattnaik.


Road from Lohit District Headquarters, Tezu to Kibithoo in Anjaw district. Image Courtesy: Jajati K Pattnaik.

  


Motorable Suspension Bridge connecting to north-eastern most town of Hawai, District Headquarters of Anjaw. Image Courtesy: Jajati K Pattnaik.

Strategic Significance

Kibithoo as an entrepôt would counter Chinese penetration into the region while reinforcing India’s strategic significance along the McMahon line. It is pertinent to note that China has already built up several infrastructure projects across the international boundary, including opening up a new highway link to Medog: “Tibet’s Nyingchi prefecture,” which is closer to India’s land border in Arunachal Pradesh (Krishnan 2013). 

It would be advisable that India should construct a 2,000 km frontier highway along the international boundary Mago Thimbu (Tawang) to Vijaynagar (Changlang) covering the upper hill areas of East Kameng, Upper Subansiri, West Siang, Upper Siang, Lower Dibang and Anjaw districts for the development of its frontier territory and build multiple trade corridors prioritising the most viable: Kibithoo corridor. 

As the union minister of State for Home Affairs, Government of India, Kiren Rijiju, who represents from the Arunachal West parliamentary constituency, said, “India has all the right to create critical infrastructure in its area … We are at freedom to construct highway in our territory. We are not harming neighbours interest. We have to develop our territories, especially those areas which are neglected for too long time. We are going to develop our own region,” (Singh 2014). 

Conversely, Shubir Bhaumik,[13] a prominent foreign policy watcher from the Northeast, remarked, “The frontier highway was long overdue and did not happen because of muddle headed defence strategists who felt keeping infrastructure poor in Arunachal Pradesh was a good way to slow down a possible Chinese advance in the event of a war.  It should be developed but not only for defence purposes. It should have suitable arteries emanating from it longitudinally to facilitate border trade with Tibet, much as the Nathu La pass was reopened to facilitate Sikkim–Tibet border trade. Once the Chinese allow border trade with Arunachal Pradesh on a large scale, it serves to dilute their strident position about Arunachal Pradesh being southern Tibet and weakens their claims.” So, the development of Kibithoo as an entrepôt would give chance to both India and China to switch their priorities from security to trade or economic collaborations based on sustainable engagement paradigms. In this context, the Nathula model may be emulated in Arunachal Pradesh in order to boost trade and commerce across the political boundaries. 

Proactive Steps  

The development of Kibithoo as an entrepôt in Indo-China border trade is still in a conceptual stage, although it has many backers at the civil society level.  No such proactive step has yet been initiated by the political machineries possibly due to the Chinese intransigence over the McMahon line. Hence, the need of the hour is to break the Indo-China jinx over the boundary row and grab the opportunities through cross-border collaborations. India should open up its frontiers to boost its economy. And if trade booms, it may draw a different landscape in the bilateral relationship between the two nations. Proactive and sustained dialogues have to be made for economic engagement between India and China going beyond the McMahon line. China needs India to expand its trade in South Asia, and India on the other hand requires the goodwill of the Chinese to penetrate into South–east Asia. If India opens up the Kibithoo route for trade and China reciprocates in the similar manner, it may herald a new relationship between the two nations.

Rijiju, stated in the Lok Sabha: 

"China has to agree. We can not enforce anyone. There has to be mutual consent, then border haat can be set up. Without cooperation from the other country, no trade can take place in any border haat" (Arunachal Times 2016). 

On the other hand, in the event of unveiling any concrete measure for such cross-border ventures, the road map should be crafted by roping in all the stakeholders on board for a meaningful action. While mapping their impending outcomes, Kibithoo should not be treated as a mere land bridge or gateway; rather, the potentialities of Arunachal Pradesh should be harnessed in order to augment the export basket of our country vis-à-vis China. Otherwise, Arunachal Pradesh would be a dumping ground for Chinese products which in turn would adversely affect India’s long-term economic interests. What is required at this stage is joint Indo-China effort to transform this spatial boundary into geo economic opportunities for the win-win situation of all the stakeholders or else, it could end up being wishful thinking or rhetoric submission.

 

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