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Yunan looks to enhance ties with India

Saturday 18 June 2005, by SUBRAMANIAN*Nirupama

The south-western Chinese province is seeking to develop links with South Asia, particularly India.

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Ritu Raj Konwar
VITAL LINK: A sigboard on the Stilwell Road in Ledo, Upper Assam. The road was a strategic supply route between India and China during the Second World War.

WITH 4,060 km of shared boundary with three countries - Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar - it is natural for China’s south-west province of Yunan to eye South-East Asia and South Asia, particularly India, as a landscape of economic potential.

The province already has a readymade trade corridor, in existence for over 2,000 years - the Lancang river which after exiting China is known as the Mekong and flows south through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam before joining the sea at Ho Chi Minh City.

It is the ambition of Yunan’s officials, assisted by Beijing, to turn the river into a "golden waterway" linking China with the rest of the world. The Chinese Government actively pushed the formation of the Greater Mekong Sub-Region Co-operation to improve transport and communication among the six riparian countries. This grouping is scheduled to meet in Kunming, the provincial capital, in the first week of July, and the city is already preparing to host the event in a big way.

Ambitious plan

Yunan officials also want to give more shape to the Kunming Initiative - named after the provincial capital - that aims to link Yunan more closely with South Asia. A track two effort, the Kunming Initiative was launched non-formally five years ago at a meeting in Yangon among China, Bangladesh, Myanmar and India. Now China is waiting for more enthusiastic Indian participation in this initiative.

"We would like to see India upgrade its involvement in the Kunming Initiative to the governmental level, particularly because the other three countries have already done that," said a Yunan official.

One of the key aspects of the initiative is the development of a road corridor that will take China closer to the three other countries. Bangladesh, which already has a direct air link between Dhaka and Kunming, has been keen on a road linking the two cities, but as it will cut through territory in India’s North-East, the project cannot go ahead without Indian agreement. "The project is under consideration but we have to wait for India’s permission," said Shi Minghui, deputy director-general of the Foreign Affairs office in the Yunan government, in a meeting with a group of South Asian journalists touring the country at the invitation of the Chinese Government.

But Yunan is not waiting for the Kunming Initiative to take off in order to develop its links with the region that lies south of its borders. The Kunming Annual Fair, a special exhibition organised by the local government for South Asian countries to showcase their products, is a magnet for Indian businessmen. India is already Yunan’s largest foreign trading partner.

At over $100 million in 2004, the volume of the trade is yet small but provincial officials are confident it will grow rapidly with potential for cooperation in the chemicals industry, in biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, and in the information technology industry.

A Yunan silk manufacturing company has set up a joint venture in Bangalore.

Famed tourist destination

Yunan is also eyeing India’s growing travelling class with interest. The province is a famed tourist destination within China, and for international visitors too.

People come here for the scenic beauty and its "forever spring" climate. Li Jiang city, which offers a different China, with its heritage of 22 different ethnic minorities, its distinctive architecture, mountains and parks, received 3.5 million tourists in 2004, and expects the number to go up to 4 million this year.

Indian tourists would add substantially to that number.

Air link to Kolkata?

Cui Zhintao, the Vice-Secretary General of the Yunan Government, said the province was already thinking of an air link to Kolkata and was already in talks with the government of West Bengal about this. "We hope to reach an agreement on this at an early date," Mr. Cui said.

At 11 per cent in 2004, Yunan has a growth rate that is higher than China’s, even though it was only in 1999 that Beijing began paying attention to the province’s development. Small-volume border trade between Yunan and its three international neighbours makes a substantial contribution to its economic development.

"We are convinced that developing friendly relations with South Asia will be beneficial for Yunan and for the region. It is in keeping with the trend of economic integration through globalisation," Mr. Cui said.

For India, there can be no better cue to prepare the North-East for what seems like an inevitable economic integration of the region with China’s south-west. India is dragging its feet on the Kunming Initiative not just due to security concerns in the North-East but also due to fears that the region might become a dumping ground for Chinese products.

But the best way to deal with that is not by glazing over when China talks about the Kunming initiative, but to rise to the challenge by paying more attention to the development of the North-East so that it can act as a springboard for genuine two-way economic cooperation between India and Yunan and the other countries in the region.

See online : The Hindu

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