ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Reclaiming the Crossroadsbetween India and China

Recent years have seen remarkable efforts in establishing transport and trade links across south-western China, Myanmar, Bangladesh and north-eastern India. In the ensuing debates among government and policy circles, railways, highways, and seaways feature prominently relative to the rivers. This article suggests that historically rivers have played the key role in economic and transport connections across these regions and therefore deserve a place in the current initiatives.

This article is based on a larger research project generously supported by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Germany.

China and India’s openings through its south-west and north-east, respectively, have put Yunnan, Tibet, Myanmar, Assam and Bangladesh into the spotlight. This is reflected in the scope of theBCIMEC (Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor) and BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation). These initiatives, among others, are bold steps to connect south, south-east and east Asia. As China’s former ambassador to Bangladesh recently noted, at least five links are considered in the fields of policy, road, trade, currency, and people (Jun 2014). In a reminiscence of Arthur Cotton’s (1866-67) 19th century idea of connecting “Calcutta to Canton” through the railways, the recent car rally from Kunming to Kolkata brings a lot of hopes and aspirations in and for these vast ecologically contiguous regions of Asia. All of these evoke the historical links of these regions to the “Silk Route” as well as what is recently termed as the “Sea Silk Route”.

What is, however, conspicuously absent in these stimulating trans-regional programmes is any meaningful reference to the river as connector. It is surprising since these regions are home to a number of major rivers that have connected the historic Silk Route with the Sea Silk Route. It is this network of rivers that has made the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea visible participants to the Indian Ocean’s global space. In fact, one can argue that between the land and sea routes, these rivers must have formed part of what we can call the “River Silk Route”. One reason why the rivers are not placed into the current integration programme is that each of the countries concerned are using the rivers as a means of “national development”, which does not sit comfortably with the transnational agenda of economic cooperation. But, such separation between the water regime of the regions and trans-regional economic integration may not prove sustainable in the long-term perspective. The widening gap between the threat of an imminent water war and the sparks of trans-regional integration, therefore, needs critical scholarly and policy attention.

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