An old piece I wrote for Himal Southasia in 2005 after driving the Stilwell Road from Kunming to Assam


The Stilwell Road: Straight Ahead?

Here’s a land route that would not only open up the
possibilities for India’s Northeast to trade and
interact with its eastern neighbours, but as an
overland link would also work to cement relationships
between Southasia, East Asia and Southeast Asia.

by Carin I Fischer

The six-lane section of the Yunnan section of the
Hacked out of the jungle 60 years ago as part of the
Allied push to end Japanese military domination in
Asia, the Stilwell Road, if reborn, may soon instigate
a sea-change in the Asian economic balance. Further,
there’s little reason to believe that the
reverberations of such a shift would be confined to
the eastern hemisphere. While recent years have seen
increasingly fervent discussions of the rising – and
rival – individual mights of India and China, the
current momentum to reopen the link between the two
countries promises a whole new consideration: the
prospect of further aligning the two economies, which
jointly comprise 40 per cent of the global population.

While most of the men who built the Stilwell Road are
now dead, the Road itself remains: disused in many
places, crumbling in others, and in a few areas
impassable during heavy rains. Built by Asian labour
and American machines and travelled by trucks
constructed in Detroit factories, the Road was once a
testament to America’s emergence as an economic
superpower. At that time, India, Burma and China were
seen as little more than conduits and destinations for
goods made elsewhere. Today that dynamic has changed. 

Perhaps more so now than during that era, the Stilwell
Road is not one road, but many roads. Passing through
South, Southeast and East Asia through fractious,
politicised regions, it is a very real, physical route
through difficult terrain. In November 2004 and April
2005, a series of overland surveys found that,
contrary to public perception, the road is very much
motorable. Except for a stretch of about 80 km in
Burma that remains impassable without a bridge during
the rainy season, the work needed for a revival of the
road is not nearly as extensive as the public has been
led to believe. Some of that work is already underway
or complete; the Chinese portion is essentially done.
China is also currently providing funds and working
extensively with Burma – including the creation of a
new shortcut that dramatically cuts the Burmese
portion in half.

In the wartime atmosphere when the Stilwell Road was
first laid, the task was physically daunting but
remarkably free of political complexities. Reopening
the Road, on the other hand, will involve several
governments and their bureaucracies. It is even
possible that the most important forces pushing
through the opening will not necessarily be national
governments, but the agitations of trade, modernity
and human connection.

Wartime update
While the Stilwell Road itself was put down in the
early 1940s, the mountainous course that it follows
had long been an integral part of the so-called
ancient Southern Silk Route. Based on new evidence,
historians now say that trade along this track between
China, Burma and India could have been going on in
full swing as early as the second century BC. Traders
bartered jade, silk, silver, tea and lacquerware,
while Buddhist and Hindu missionaries treaded the
route as a threshold to East Asia.

The shortest land route between northeastern India and
southwestern China, the Stilwell Road connects the
rail spur at Ledo in Assam to the provincial capital
of Kunming in Yunnan, over a distance of 1,736 km. US
Army General Joseph Stilwell, who was the regional
commander of US troops as well as Chiang Kai-shek’s
chief of staff, was defeated by the Japanese in Burma
in the spring of 1942. After retreating, Stilwell
prepared for a counterattack and ordered into
existence the supply link that would bear his name.
Fifteen thousand soldiers and countless local workers
laboured for two years, carving a muddy track and
parallel fuel pipeline through the heavily forested
mountains. The feat was an engineering marvel, a
labour nightmare – and, elsewhere as the war took its
own route, an unnecessarily massive effort. Completed
in 1945, the Japanese surrender of eight months later
brought the wartime need for the Road to an end. 

Known as the Burma Road in China, the Ledo Road in
Burma, and the Stilwell Road in India, the course was
composed of around 57 km in India, 1,040 km in Burma,
and 639 km in China. The Indian part of the Road has
been closed since 1961, mainly for security reasons,
and some stretches have fallen into disrepair.
Similarly, about 80 km of the Road in Burma is barely
passable during the rainy season. China, on the other
hand, has built a six-lane highway from Kunming that
ends abruptly at the Burmese border. It is largely
stubborn determination on the part of the Chinese that
has given the reopening plan its current momentum.
While the old Stilwell Road is still used by local
border-crossing traders, significantly greater has
been the illegal trafficking between India, China,
Burma, and Southeast Asia. A reopening would convert
much of the contraband transport to legitimate trade. 

Three countries
The current movement towards reopening the Road was
formally initiated in August of 1999, when China,
India and Burma – as well as Bangladesh – met in
China’s southern province of Yunnan and officially
approved an agreement known as the Kunming Initiative.
On a broad level, the Initiative decided to improve
communications between India’s northeast and
south-western China. While general talk involved the
possibilities of developing rail, water, and air
links, specific emphasis was placed on revitalising
the old Southern Silk Route. Chinese and Indian
officials eagerly pushed for the infrastructure
project to get underway, however, a former Indian
ambassador to China urged the Kunming delegates to be
patient – to wait while New Delhi wrestled with its
own issues and doubts. That patience may now be paying

Back in 1991, while facing imminent bankruptcy, India
ushered in a series of belated financial reforms and
the first place it turned to was the burgeoning market
that was Southeast Asia. That year, India not only
took steps towards ASEAN partnership, policymakers
also put in place a Look East policy that positioned
the Northeast at the forefront of its strategy.
Despite this, it has only been over the past year that
New Delhi is finally placing serious focus on the
region as an eastern gateway. The largest component of
such a strategy would be the reopening of the Stilwell
Road, while there is an effort underway to reestablish
international trade through Sikkim (see accompanying
article pp). Undoubtedly, some of this flurry has to
do with a push for closer economic interaction with
Southeast Asia. Much of it also has to do with the
giant, hurried steps currently being taken by both
China and India towards one another.

That pace is partly to make up for lost time. Security
concerns have long played the most critical role in
formulating India’s regional foreign policy –
particularly the perceived ‘vulnerability’ along its
Himalayan frontier, which is a legacy of the 1962 war
with China. Trade, for the time being, took a back
seat. In the meantime, traditional trade routes
crucial to the local economies dried up, while new
land routes were rarely discussed. The Northeast has
faced a debilitating paradox as local crossborder
trade has been outlawed due to security concerns,
while trade between the secluded region and the rest
of India has failed to develop. The inter-community
and secessionist violence that continues to rack the
poor, agrarian region has only made New Delhio:’s
policymakers more skittish about opening it up to
international traffic and attention. 

Even as New Delhi has waffled on the matter, the
northeastern states are overwhelmingly in favour of
reopening the Stilwell Road. Leading that charge has
been Pradyut Bordoloi, Assam’s Minister of Environment
and Forests, in whose constituency the Road begins. In
2002, Bordoloi participated in the Dhaka meet of the
Kunming Initiative – an unusually forthright action
for a minister; in so doing, Bordoloi essentially
bypassed New Delhi, taking his concerns directly to
the international delegates. Bordoloi is joined by key
politicians, as well as numerous local businessmen,
academics, tour operators, security experts, travel
writers, filmmakers, and – most importantly – the
tribal communities that live along the Road, whose
cultural and familial ties transcend political
frontiers. Northeastern academics, top-level state and
national politicians, as well as large corporate
interests have all expressed the view that
reconstruction of the Road is the ideal vehicle for
advancing vital economic ties between the Northeast,
ASEAN partner countries and China. 

Since the 1999 signing of the Kunming Initiative, the
Stilwell project has received intermittent jolts of
energy. In October of 2000, India declared its section
of the Road a national highway (No 153). After China,
Bangladesh and Burma had officially endorsed the
agreement in 1999, the head of the Indian delegation
followed suit at the 2002 Dhaka meet. The Northeast
Council, a committee that focuses on economic
development of the region, also gave its formal
support to the project in November of that year. This
year, however, has seen a unique flurry of action –
kicked off on January 20 when a high-level Indian team
visited the Nampong-Pangsaw Pass, the border point
between Burma and Arunachal Pradesh along the Stilwell
Road. There, national officials publicly stressed the
need for creating basic infrastructure to promote
crossborder trade and promising all possible help from
New Delhi. A month after that official site visit,
Congress President Sonia Gandhi stated in a speech in
Arunachal Pradesh that the reopening of traditional
trade routes with neighbouring Burma (as well as with
Tibet and Bhutan) would give a much-needed boost to
the economy of the state and the region. 

India’s movement on the Stilwell project follows a
thaw in its dealings with China. While tense
Sino-Indian relations long placed such talks off
limits, the successful settlement of the long-running
dispute over Sikkim and ongoing efforts regarding the
border at Arunachal Pradesh have soothed political
sensitivities. In February of 2005, during a visit to
the Assamese capital Guwahati, officials of the Yunnan
Provincial Chamber of Commerce (YPCC) strongly
recommended that the Road be opened to help traders in
the Northeast, Burma, and Yunnan. To that end, the
YPCC has taken the matter up with Chinese authorities
to help expedite the Road’s reconstruction. Two months
later, on the occasion of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s
historic visit to India, it was disclosed that China
had already started renovations to the Road in Burma,
in a unilateral effort to connect Yunnan to that
country and ultimately to India. The Chinese
authorities have now completed initial surveys and a
detailed renovation plan is near release. 

To demonstrate its support for the reopening of the
transnational link, China has transformed its portion
of the Road into a modern superhighway. The major
artery-in-waiting not only leads directly to Kunming,
but also to the neighbouring province of Guangdong.
That powerhouse province’s GDP not only grew a
staggering 14.5 per cent last year, it is also
expected to top USD 250 billion by 2006. In the other
direction, the new highway ends abruptly at the
Burmese border. Despite China’s mining and logging
interests in Burma, there is only one reason to build
a massive thoroughfare to the middle of nowhere: the
future possibilities towards India. In a sense,
China’s entire relationship with Burma has long been
built on such a long-term view. While India used to be
Burma’s largest supporter, during the 1970s and 1980s
that relationship was neglected; Burma inevitably
realigned with China, its other monumentally powerful
neighbour. Now China is everywhere in Burma and
Chinese earth-movers are currently hard at work
reshaping and upgrading the Ledo Road – the obvious
extension of the six-lane mammoth that ends at the

Burma, indeed, has remained the project’s physical
lynchpin, as well as its most temperamental obstacle.
The formidable problems plaguing Rangoon’s military
junta – including the ones that it has brought on
itself – have included ethnic resisting Rangoon’s
strongarm tactics, as well as concerns over human
rights violations; both of these are centred directly
in the area through which the Road passes. Such issues
have weighed heavily on the minds of Burma’s
leadership and, despite tentative past agreements, as
of 2004 Rangoon had again definitively rejected any
possibility of reopening the Road to international

On June 15 of this year a news item from Rangoon
suddenly reported that Burma would reopen its section
of the Stilwell Road by 2006. This followed
discussions between the Burmese Ministry of Commerce
and the India-Burma Federation of Chambers of Commerce
and Industry, held the previous month. Several joint
projects are currently underway between New Delhi and
Rangoon, including the planning of a major gas
pipeline from Burma to India via Bangladesh, as well
as linking ports between the two countries on the two
sides of the Bay of Bengal. While all of this
international bridge-building is undoubtedly a welcome
change from the resounding condemnation that the junta
typically receives, the country’s pariah status has
nevertheless taken a significant toll. Burma is
desperately in need of foreign currency and is now
actively propagating regional tourism as a key

In recent years, China has become poised to emerge as
the single most crucial component to India’s export
growth. According to recent reports, in 2004-05 China
became India’s second-largest trade partner, as well
as the second-largest destination for India’s exports
– both trailing only the US. Only two years earlier,
Chinese products were merely the sixth largest among
Indian imports. Total trade between the two countries
has gone from a few hundred million dollars in the
late 1990s to USD 13.6 billion in 2004. With efficient
overland routes such as the Stilwell Road inactive,
Sino-Indian trade has continued to be shunted by sea
all the way around the Southeast Asian peninsula.

A continuation of such stasis would only impede
current economic forecasts. With China’s rapidly
growing GDP, the demand for imports of raw materials,
components and parts is expected to continue to rise
in the near future. With China’s GDP set to grow
between 7.7 and 8.7 per cent between 2004 and 2008,
this means USD 20 billion in bilateral trade between
China and India by 2008. From this perspective, India
– and its northeastern states – must move immediately
to foster closer and more broad-based economic ties
with China. Despite the recent increases, current
trade between the two countries still makes up only
eight per cent of India’s total exports and only one
percent of China’s. At an August 2005 economic
conference in India, Chinese officials characterised
those figures as miniscule compared to the size of the
two countries and pushed to start talks on a
Sino-Indian free trade agreement. Given the enormous
expense currently necessary to shuttle goods between
the two countries via the 6,000 km sea route, an
efficient land link would be the only option for such
an agreement to result in the desired economic

The Northeast-Yunnan link
Given the proximity between Yunnan province and
India’s Northeast, a reopened Stilwell Road would be
almost as important as a region-to-region relationship
as a transnational one. Despite the recent boom in
trade between the two, none of India’s current exports
to China are sourced from the resource-rich Northeast.
Up until now, shipping costs have simply been too
high. China has, however, expressed significant
interest in importing rice, tea, neem, and a variety
of other agricultural products sourced from the
northeastern region. This would be a crucial
development for the area, albeit a happily problematic
one: as the Northeast has never had a significant
market for its agro-products, producers have never
placed much emphasis on capacity-building. 

Currently, Indian imports from Yunnan include
chemicals, items used by the pharmaceutical industry,
mineral products and silk yarn. From India, Yunnan
imports oil seeds and mills, marine products,
pharmaceuticals and fine chemicals, iron and steel,
textiles, and raw silk. The Yunnan Provincial
Government is now anxious to import a variety of
additional agricultural products grown in the
Northeast. Yunnan’s interest in perishable items over
a relatively short distance would require a road (or
rail) link between the two countries. 

If more direct transit existed between the Northeast
and ASEAN countries, tourists on the heavily
trafficked Southeast Asia circuit would be
significantly more inclined come this way. A recent
report states that if the tourism potential of the
Northeast were fully developed, within 20 years the
region could receive as many tourists as Singapore and
Bangkok. Such high expectations are based on tapping
into the Chinese tourism market which is expected to
boom. Currently the entire northeast with its
beautiful mountain landscape, its rainforests and
diverse cultures, is being exploited only by a small
number of tour operators specialising in ‘adventure’

Perhaps more than many others, the tribal and other
marginalised groups in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh in
particular would benefit greatly from both a
transnational thoroughfare, as well as any growth in
tourism and associated infrastructure. Many of these
groups have had close historic ties that have been cut
due to border and travel restrictions. The Kachins of
Burma, for instance, are ethnically and culturally
nearly identical to both the Singphos in Upper Assam
and the Jingpaws in southwestern China. Members of the
three groups have little if any sanctioned contact,
however, as a result of current travel restrictions
along the Road. In addition to a long-awaited removal
of those obstacles, tourism is seen as the one
activity that would trickle down to all segments of
society, in particular benefiting local communities. 

Increased tourism from a reopened Stilwell Road would
be of great benefit to the northeastern regions of
Burma. All throughout Kachin state, new tourism
infrastructure is now visible, including the
appearance of numerous roadside restaurants. A tiger
reserve has been established near Tanai. Despite its
location, current trade negotiations look to use Burma
less as a partner than as a conduit. While significant
finances already flow between the country and China,
the present value of formal Burmese imports from India
is about INR 22 billion per year. According to a study
by the Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, however, the
potential for additional trade with Burma, and
especially with bordering states in the Northeast, is
considerable. Informal Indo-Burmese trade is estimated
to be 44 times the amount of formal trade and includes
electronics, Chinese textiles, pirated media and
narcotics. Burma is interested in increasing its
pharmaceutical imports from India, as well as
encouraging more active trade in vehicle parts, cotton
yarn, branded foods, petroleum products and
construction materials. Although some of these items
would be able to be imported more cheaply because of
reduced shipping costs, Burma’s main benefits from a
new international trade route would be through transit
fees and tourism-related activities.

For the Northeast
While linking the northeast with Kachin state and
Yunnan would of course be welcome, reopening the Road
would allow the Northeast to emerge as a major transit
centre for both the SAARC and ASEAN regions. Along
with a significant increase in transnational trade,
such a development could also provide a resounding
answer to one of India’s longest lingering dilemmas:
the largely ignored employment problem in the
country’s cloistered Northeast. It is a problem that
began with the British, when colonial mapmakers
created security barriers at the edge of the hills and
severed ancient routes of trade and cultural exchange.
With the loss of nearby trade partners to both its
north and east, the Northeast became completely
dependent on mainland India for trade options through
the 37 km-wide Siliguri corridor in West Bengal. While
both colonial and independent India have utilised the
Northeast as an important resource garden, the long,
circuitous routes that the indigenous products have to
take to exit the region have made them prohibitively
expensive for any market. 

Due in large part to its geopolitical placement, the
Northeast is widely acknowledged as India’s economic
laggard. With roughly 40 million people – 30 per cent
of them from tribal communities – the Northeast makes
up less than four per cent of India’s population. The
economic deprivation that has masked the northeast,
whose overwhelmingly rural populace (90 per cent)
earns nearly half that of the rest of India. 

That inertia has fed the lingering separatist violence
that the rest of the Subcontinent associates with this
region. With arms, illegal drugs, and ideology already
coming from across India’s borders, many have voiced
concern over the years that reopening sanctioned
international border crossings would only enhance
those negative effects. But others, more circumspect
observers maintain that the reopening of trade routes
such as the Stilwell Road would boost the economy as
well as help still at long last the many rebellions in
the Northeast. The former Director General of the
Indian Border Security Force, E.N. Rammohan posited in
a 2005 essay that, “Roads are the first enemies of
insurgents. Denied of a hinterland, he has no place to
retreat. Today this is the first step to be taken by
the Government of India.”

Current restrictions and the absence of legitimate
customs points have also been a reason for the
voluminous entry of smuggled goods from China and
Burma into India. According to customs and security
experts, the reopening of the Road and the regular
movement of endorsed traffic would significantly
reduce contraband movement through the area. Since the
demand for these goods is already high, many would
greatly benefit from legitimising that trade through
the collection of customs fees, excise taxes and tolls
along the Road. While there are valid concerns that
local produces may take a beating on the arrival of
cheaply produced foreign products, there is good
reason to believe that local manufacturers are already
being hurt by the current inflow of illegal goods.
Either way, the market already exists; at the moment,
however, that market is being exploited without
regulation, or payment of customs fees.

Regional networking
There are other countries in the Stilwell equation
besides Burma, India and China. Since participating as
an original signatory to the 1999 Kunming Initiative
and re-pledging itself to the process in 2002 when the
meet was held in its capital, Bangladesh has been
largely invisible in the Stilwell project. Many
observers urge Dhaka to jump on the “Sino-India
bandwagon”, warning that a westward extension of the
trade route to Calcutta would otherwise bypass the
country through Siliguri. Notwithstanding perennial
tensions between Dhaka and New Delhi, those critics
maintain that fostering stronger ties with China is
not only in Bangladesh’s best interest, but that the
opportunity has rarely been closer at hand as
presented by Stilwell. 

Thailand, on the other side of Burma, is particularly
keen to increase trade relations with the Northeast
and has expressed interest in seeing the Stilwell Road
reopen. The country recently announced its intention
to expand trade ties with the area, with a special
focus on tea, fruit and food processing sectors; it is
also actively looking into joint eco-tourism ventures
in Assam. 

The economic viability of increased trade between
India, China, Burma and other Southeast Asian
countries largely depends on the reopening of the most
direct land routes connecting the countries. According
to the Indian multinational Hindustan Lever, which
actively trades with most ASEAN countries, the costs
of container shipping of many products via sea routes
from any part of India, in particular the Northeast,
are prohibitively high. 

If, as a result of reopening the Road, the Northeast
were to become a major regional distribution centre,
transit times and transportation costs between the
partners could be reduced on average by an estimated
30 per cent. From the border point at Pansau in
Arunachal Pradesh, exports from India shipped via the
Road could reach Kunming in two days, Rangoon in less
than three days, Bangkok in four days, and Singapore
within six days. All this may sound fantastic and
unreachable at the moment, but they are within the
realm of possibility. The Stilwell route could lead to
a snowballing of market linkage between India, China
and Southeast Asia. Free trade agreements are already
in place between India, Thailand and Singapore.
Additional accords are due by 2016 with the rest of
ASEAN countries, while similar discussions are
starting with China. With all of this high-level trade
talk, there should be little wonder that momentum has
picked up towards creating an economically feasible
way with which to move those goods and products that
will need moving. 

Down the road
Whether on the six-lane superhighway from Kunming to
the Burmese border, the sometimes barely discernable
track within Burma, or the bustling two-lane stretch
in Assam, at the moment, travelling the Stilwell Road
is an admittedly lively adventure. While that
hair-raising excitement will have to be toned down to
allow for a regular commercial flow, but make no
mistake: emerging with the Road’s new tarmac is a key
to the continued transformation of Asia as a whole –
linking Southasia, East Asia and Southeast Asia all at
once. Although it was wartime Americans who brought
the Road’s original earthmoving machines, the effort
to build the Road, the fighting that secured it, and
the communities that have incorporated it have always
been multinational. While it would be foolish to
underestimate the geopolitical obstacles facing the
push to reopen Stilwell, the simple fact is that the
Road will inevitably come into greater use as India,
Burma and China continue to become more economically
powerful, independent, and intertwined. And with them,
the rest of Asia.

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