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Building Strategic Roadways in Arunachal Pradesh

Namrata Goswami was Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • June 13, 2006

    Travelling in Arunachal Pradesh without having to suffer from poorly developed roads is indeed inconceivable. Existing roads by themselves are of the primitive 'potholed' variety, which is made worse by frequent landslides in the rainy season. This state of affairs not only disconnects the state from the rest of India but also proves hazardous for the Indian security apparatus operating along the country's borders with China. Given the presence of the Chinese military on the other side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), Indian policy makers had hypothesized that it was strategically prudent to keep the roadways infrastructure in Arunachal weak. The rationale behind such a policy was that the inhospitable nature of the terrain would deter the Chinese from furthering their strategy of obtaining easy territorial access into a state in which China claims 90,000 square kilometres (34,750 square miles) of territory.

    Upending the above logic, India initiated a policy shift in May 2006 when the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) cleared the construction of strategic roads in Arunachal. This sudden change in Indian policy towards the border areas also reversed the post-1962 mindset, informed primarily by the military "logic" of keeping Arunachal Pradesh weak, in an infrastructural sense. Indeed, by enabling such an important policy shift, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government has set in place the necessary groundwork for building seven strategic roads, including two inter-basin arteries by the Border Roads Organization (BRO). The importance of this policy shift is reflected in the fact that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was to undertake a visit to Arunachal on June 13 to inaugurate the 410 metre long bridge on Lohit river at Brahmakund near Wakkro as well as to receive first hand information on the proposed strategic roads linkage, but had to postpone his visit due to the onset of the monsoons. Significantly, the seven planned roadways in Arunachal are a part of a larger plan of building nearly twenty roads in states along the LAC. The recently published Arunachal Pradesh Human Development Report 2005 also stressed upon the need to improve road linkages within the state for sound implementation of development policies.

    This vital Indian policy shift in Arunachal could be seen as a reaction to the Chinese build-up of roads to Aksai Chin in the western sector and to Tibet in the eastern sector. China's road link to Tibet is along the Arunachal border and consequently enables the easy movement of Chinese goods, services and military hardware to the border areas. China also established vital road links with Nepal in 2005 through the Kodari highway, which connects Lhasa and Kathmandu with a bus service, and with Pakistan through the Karakoram highway. In March 2006, China announced duty free access to Nepali goods into Western China. Indeed, China has successfully converted these strategic roadways into vital economic assets by encouraging rapidly growing border trade with Nepal and Pakistan. The growing Chinese economic presence has resulted in expanding Chinese influence in a region that is uncomfortably close to the Indian strategic borderlands. It is crucial to understand that it is within the Chinese grand strategic matrix to rapidly increase economic ties in the subcontinent, an effort in which Beijing has been largely successful. In that context, the strategic significance of China and Pakistan launching new road linkages between Kashgar in China's north-western province of Xinjiang and Gilgit in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir cannot be lost on Indian policy makers. Both sides have agreed to run bus services between Gilgit and Kasghar on a daily basis and from Sust to Tashgurkan thrice a week from June 15, 2006. China has also pledged US$350 million for the rehabilitation of the Karakoram highway. The rationale provided for the upgrade is that it would enable exporters from western China transport goods with ease to the Gwadar port.

    The China-Nepal-Pakistan road linkages notwithstanding, the Indian policy of building strategic road links in its borderlands also reflects the growing confidence of the Indian state. It provides insights into the Indian vision of regional economic integration by improving infrastructural facilities in its border areas, an aspect in which the Chinese are far ahead of India. The current Indian policy refreshingly sets aside Indian insecurities arising on account of the 1962 war with China. Defeat in that conflict and Chinese incursions into Indian territory had made New Delhi sensitive to Chinese troop presence along the border. However, growing Sino-Indian ties in the economic, strategic, cultural, and military spheres have brought about a distinct sense of 'trust' in this historically complicated relationship. India and China have been termed as the rising powers of Asia and a positive engagement between the two is seen as benefiting both sides as well as the Asian region as a whole.

    Viewed within the context of the "2006 India-China friendship year", and positive current developments, one can safely predict a period of burgeoning relationship between these two rising Asian economic giants. The first ever Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between Indian Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee and his Chinese counterpart General Cao Gangchuan on May 29, 2006 called for an institutionalization of the official and military exchanges between the two sides. Both sides have also agreed to hold joint military exercises and training, and increase confidence-building measures to resolve complex issues. By setting in a process of regular and sustained dialogue on defence and military affairs, the MoU has the potential to initiate a positive tone for engagement on the border issue, till now perceived as the Achilles' heel in Sino-Indian relations.

    Analysed in the backdrop of the MoU, New Delhi's decision to develop roadways in Arunachal is an important move, which sets in motion an evolving Indian strategy of greater engagement with China. It is also indicative of the current policy establishment's ability to chalk out new pathways to enhance the economic progress and infrastructural development of peripheral Indian states. The Arunachal case signifies the beginning of a new strategic vision of well-connected borders. Existential difficulties in border states like Arunachal demand better management of resources and infrastructure for efficient trade and transport. Good infrastructure would not only better connect the people of border areas but also ensure greater security. Well-developed roads in peripheral regions would further India's vision of greater economic engagement with neighbouring states and also increase its influence in the neighbourhood. Most importantly, such initiatives are likely to deepen benefits flowing from the "Look East" policy, which seeks to strengthen India's ties with the economically vibrant Southeast Asian region. India's Northeast can provide the crucial transportation link to Southeast Asia on account of its geographic proximity to the region. A burgeoning economic engagement with Southeast Asia through a well-developed transport infrastructure in the Northeast would result in direct economic benefits for the latter. In sum, vibrant trade corridors could uplift standards of living and entrench a feeling of "human security", so far denied to the people of India's northeast.