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Updated: April 29, 2013 01:41 IST

Pass to better relations with China

Virendra Sahai Verma
Comment (11)   ·   print   ·   T  T  
The Hindu

Reviving trade and ties through the Karakoram route will have a positive impact on Sino-Indian ties

The Karakoram Pass played a significant role in the flourishing trade on the Silk Route between India-China and Central Asia. The pass was shut down and trade stopped in 1949 when Xinjiang became a part of People’s Republic of China. Leh was a busy cosmopolitan commercial town, with traders from Central Asia, Kashgarh, Yarkand, Kabul, Tibet, Kashmir, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh who stayed on for one or two months after their exhausting journey. The trade, through the Karakoram, influenced the dress, food and dance forms of Ladakh. On the other side of the Pass, “Chini Bagh” at Kashgarh (the residence of the British Joint Commissioner of Trade), “Gurdial Sarai” and “Kashmiri Kucha” (street) at Yarkand, where Indian traders used to stay, still remind us of the magnitude of commerce that took place. The Bactrian camel (double hump) of Nubra valley is a relic from Xinjiang. A generation of people in Nubra still speaks the Uyghur dialect. Food served in some of old streets of Leh has a distinctly Central Asian flavour.

Central and popular

At 18,250 feet, Karakoram was one of the highest trade routes. Now, a motorable road exists through Khardungla (18,680 feet) and Turumputila up to the base of Saser Kangri. Thereafter, a track moves over to camp sites of Murgo (in Yarkandi, also known as the gateway of death), Burtsa, Kazilangar, Deptsang la, Daulat Beg Oldi (the Indo-Tibetan Border Police post named after a Xinjiang caravan leader who was buried here) and finally to the Karakoram Pass. Notably, the India-China boundary at the pass is not disputed; it is indicated by two heaps of stones at a distance of 50 feet, one Indian, and the other Chinese. It is an eight day-trek from the picturesque Nubra Valley to the Karakoram Pass. It is not possible to get lost there — the trail of bones and skeletons of men and animals constantly remind the weary traveller of the ruggedness of terrain and weather. But in spite of those drawbacks, the Karakoram Pass remained popular due to its centrality and affinity with Ladakhis.

The Silk Route, through which passed Chinese merchandise, notably silk to Rome, is a primary axis of transportation through the heart of Asia. A number of auxiliary axes feed into the Silk Route. An important feeder route from the lower Himalayas was from Hunza via Sarikol into Xinjiang via the Mintaka Pass. This route is now a part of the Northern Areas of Pakistan. Another more important route was via Karakoram from the Leh-Nubra valley or Leh-Changla pass-Shyok Valley.

Modern link

Pakistan has always enhanced its strategic power much more than its economic and scientific potential by making full use of its geostrategic location. It was at the 1955 Bandung Non-Aligned nations conference that President Ayub Khan and Premier Chou en Lai met for the first time and later concluded, in 1963, the historic Sino-Pakistan Boundary Agreement. Earlier, Pakistan Army engineers had built a Indus Valley road to Gilgit. Later, Pakistan concluded an agreement with China to transform this road into an all-weather dual carriageway all the way up to the Mintaka Pass. Completed in 1969, the Karakoram Highway pushes north through Islamabad, Gilgit and crosses the Karakoram range through the 16,000ft Khunjerab Pass. The highway abandoned the Mintaka Pass because of its proximity to Russia and the road is now closer to and strengthens the Xinjiang-Aksai Chin Western Tibet road. Approximately 10,000 Chinese and 15,000 Pakistani engineers and army troops were employed in building the road with 80 bridges. The road was hailed by the London-based Financial Times as “China’s new trade outlet to Africa and Middle East” in the Pakistan Himalayas via a “modernized ancient silk route” (quoted by Dawn, Karachi, April 30, 1971).

Cultural bridges

India should negotiate with China to open the ancient trade route for mutual gain. India enjoys historic popularity with the people of Central Asia and Xinjiang. Most of the merchandise sold by Pakistani traders across the border in China is of Indian origin. The economy of Ladakh, which has traditionally depended on trade, would thrive with the opening of the Karakoram Pass. Ever suspicious of links between militant Uyghurs and terrorist outfits in Pakistan, China would have no such fears regarding Ladakh. There are immense possibilities for the revival of an ancient Buddhist connection and for two-way tourism to ancient Buddhist sites in Central Asia and India. Ladakh Buddhists long to visit the “Thousand Buddhist caves” at Dunhuang in Xinjiang. The Karakoram Pass has also been a traditional Haj route from Xinjiang. Pilgrims can take advantage of direct Haj flights from Srinagar. As strong cultural bridges already exist, we have to revive them by resuming trade through the pass.

Energy gateway

Karakoram can also act as a gateway for hydrocarbon pipelines from Central Asia. The planned Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline (TAPI) from the city of Shymkent must pass through disturbed and insecure areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Another pipeline from Kazakhstan, which would also pass through the same territory, is being conceived. The security of the pipeline would always be in doubt despite local government guarantees. The route from the Central Asian countries via Xinjiang and the Karakoram Pass would be more secure. There is another advantage, most of the hydrocarbon pipelines in Central Asia are on an east-west axis. A pipeline through Karakoram, at least up to the pass, would have an east-west line. It would be economical and technologically easier. China is already planning an oil pipeline connecting Gwadar Port with Xinjiang along with the Karakoram Highway. India can make a beginning by proposing a comparatively secure pipeline through Xinjiang and Karakoram. It would be a good confidence-building step by both countries.

It may be argued that the economic viability of the Pass is not great, especially through the all-weather motorable roads over the Khunjerab Pass; through here, a truck from Kashgarh can get to Karachi in five days for seven months in a year, compared to 12 through the Karakoram Pass.

The author would argue that the opening of the Karakoram Pass would hugely benefit the people of Ladakh and Xinjiang. Tibet, as a source of merchandise, has not been successful as Chinese goods are available from Nepal.

The commercial potential of central Asian carpets, silk, leather goods, dry fruits in India and the direct export of Indian goods to Xinjiang would be very high. The popularity of Indian and Xinjiang goods and the revival of ancient cultural links make a good case for opening the Karakoram Pass for trade. Once done, development of infrastructure for traffic and energy pipelines, and other benefits will follow.

(Virendra Sahai Verma is Hon Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi, and an Indian Army veteran.)

More In: Comment | Opinion

The author's point of view regarding Karakoram Pass is commendable and
it would be beneficial from the business frame.But the author has
failed to realize the ground reality prevailing through Chinese and
Pakistani mindset,as the duo won't permit the reopening of the pass
and they may utilize it for anti-Indian prospects.The Chinese may
perceive such a proposal as an attempt to hammer up the Chinese
initiative in POK and intrigue the population of Xinjiang . Moreover
,China may use this pass as another dumping route to the Indian
markets through it's various measures and thus making a
strategic harm to India.

from:  Prashant kumar kannaujiya
Posted on: Apr 29, 2013 at 14:13 IST

In continuation to Apte's comment: We should improve our manufacturing
sector - those in power and the wealthy to think about establishing
manufacturing units in our villages, for each and every item imported
from China - divert all non-performing public sector resources and
facilities to educate in this area - convert the illiterates a skilled
labourer; do this within 6 months (divert maximum power to this). Once
we become self reliant start giving importance to quality - now you
open up the trade between the two countries and allow open competition
happen. There will not be any threat from anybody.

from:  Sasi
Posted on: Apr 29, 2013 at 13:59 IST

can trade be "Rambad"of all the problems.? If it were then in spite of
such a huge trade with China why there is dispute on borders?

from:  deepak upadhyay
Posted on: Apr 29, 2013 at 13:12 IST

Excellent opportunity for both the countries. Present situation across
the Border countries is not very tempting for cordial relations, since
India is surrounded by unstable neighbors. Now they should really
initiate stronger ties with China. Enough is lost, no more tension.

from:  Injamamul Arief
Posted on: Apr 29, 2013 at 12:27 IST

The author contradicts himself in the article. He points out that China and Pakistan signed a " historic" treaty in 1963 defining their borders. We can see that all major projects commenced after that.

It could be romantic to think about the Silk Road and ancient history , but until both India and China define their borders by a clear treaty , China will not even look at any commercial proposals for the region.

This article clearly puts the cart before the horse.

from:  S NItyananda
Posted on: Apr 29, 2013 at 11:50 IST

Sunil Joshi (Director) Epoch Distribution Pvt Ltd, Noida, UP : India will have to pay a heavy price if it does not acheive the " Status Quo " as China is looking for an excuse to spar with India it weillnot tbe a medium scale war as " BRAHMOS " will have to be unleashed to give them a fitting reply .This carefully planned intrusion could not have gone undetected by the Indian Armed Forces what was A K Anthony doing on the night of 15th April when these PLA Soilders intruded into our territory . We have to show them our fisted reply as well. The Indian Army should surround these PLA Soilders and cut off all their food and water supply and take them into custody . A strong sentiment is building up against China in India and the world with regard to its incursion into India it is not only shamefull but pathetic for our country's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for terming this Chinese incursion as “a localised issue.” The government should call an end to this NOW not Later !

from:  Sunil Joshi
Posted on: Apr 29, 2013 at 11:28 IST

It is a very good suggestion and it seems to bring real profit to India. But is it really possible at this moment as there is problems are boiling between both the countries even-though it is silent ? The gate way had been closed for a very long tome also... and a sudden suggestion to open it during the international agitation may make them to raise their eyebrows too !!

from:  Sandhya K S
Posted on: Apr 29, 2013 at 10:35 IST

I simply don't get it why THE HINDU is underplaying Chinese incursion
issue by posting such articles talking of how to facilitate trade and
commerce in Karakoram.Those chinese who infiltrated 10 Kms deep into our
territory and are reluctant to leave and it seems unlikely they have any
intention to leave in the foreseeable future, you are suggesting to open
up new trade routes so that they can further annex our territory.Someone
rightly mentioned in their comments earlier that THE HINDU is acting as
if it's a Chinese Newspaper.

from:  Ankit Trivedi
Posted on: Apr 29, 2013 at 10:25 IST

While it is true that increase in bilateral trade is generally helpful
to improve relations with a neighbouring country, India has just not
been able to do that with great success, with any one of its
neighbours. For example, India’s exports of manufactured goods to
China have been far short of its imports, resulting in huge surplus in
favour of China. This is one reason why we may not be able use
bilateral trade as a tool for improving relations, especially with
China. Secondly, China is known to favour a particular way of solving
its international boundary disputes with its neighbours. It is known
for raising disputes in an aggressive way, and insists on solutions in
particular manner. Hence let us not be so naïve.
Lastly, we must reconsider our policy of liberal imports of
manufactured goods from China and insist on balancing trade on a
regular basis. Increasing trade cannot be at the cost of national
interests.

from:  Narendra M Apte
Posted on: Apr 29, 2013 at 08:34 IST

Mr. Verma has made an extremely important contribution to the possible scope for future Sino-Indian dialogue and confidence building measures. It is to be hoped that Government of India would take due note of his ideas.

from:  Prosenjit Das Gupta
Posted on: Apr 29, 2013 at 07:34 IST

There is no doubt about it that the opening up of the old trade routes will do a lot of good to the people and prosperity of this region.

from:  Jaspal Singh
Posted on: Apr 29, 2013 at 05:38 IST
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