The historic city of Dali — famous for its Three Pagodas and located in the southwest Chinese province of Yunnan — recently hosted the ministerial meeting of the Greater Mekong Sub-region Economic Cooperation Programme. Coordinated by the Asian Development Bank, this programme involves China, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar, with Yunnan being the main torch-bearer on behalf of China. The programme was launched in 1992, and over the past 11 years, around $ 1 billion has been put on the ground in power and transport projects. But it was only last November in Phnom Penh that the six heads of state met for the first time to give the programme a renewed political momentum and chart a ten-year strategic framework for cooperation in diverse areas like energy, health, education, environment, transport, tourism and telecommunications. Coming almost a year after this summit, the Dali meeting assumed special importance. It reiterated the commitment of the six countries to the three C’s — connectivity, competitiveness and community — in the region.
In an apparent bid to counter the Chinese, India too has made a foray into the Mekong Basin. In July 2000, with much fanfare and recalling its ancient links to the region, India announced a Ganga-Mekong Swarnabhoomi Project involving India, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar, leaving out China where, incidentally, the Mekong originates. The project was grand in scope, envisaging cooperation in areas like road and rail infrastructure, tourism, IT and education. But unlike the Chinese-backed initiative in the Mekong Basin, the India-championed project is floundering. True, over the past year, Atal Bihari Vajpayee has had successful visits to Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, apart from China as well. The statement issued after the first ASEAN-India summit in Phnom Penh in November, 2002, reaffirmed mutual interest in the Mekong-Ganga project and also highlighted India’s desire to participate in the Greater Mekong Programme. How these fine words and sentiments will translate into actual projects and investments by India remains to be seen. But Sanskritic chauvinism is the wrong way to go about winning friends. The website of the Indian ministry of external affairs makes the ludicrous claim that Mekong comes from Ma Ganga. And Jaswant Singh was forced to drop the word, Swarnabhoomi, when the Vientiane Declaration, formally announcing the Mekong-Ganga initiative, was adopted in November 2000.
China is championing another idea that is of great interest to India, particularly to our Northeast and East, whose economic future is tied as much to India as it is to east and southeast Asia. In August 1999, academic scholars from four countries — China, India, Bangladesh and Myanmar — met in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, and adopted a document now referred to as the “Kunming Initiative”. The provincial government of Yunnan has been the most enthusiastic votary of this initiative that contemplates cooperation in trade, tourism and transport. But the Indian government has been less than enthusiastic. The official establishment here sees the Kunming Initiative as a sinister ploy to increase Chinese influence in our troubled Northeast. That China provided support to some militant groups in the Northeast in the Sixties and Seventies is not in doubt. Whether it continues to do so is open to question. Whether it has larger designs on the Northeast, barring perhaps on Tawang in Arun- achal Pradesh (because of its historical and cultural ties with Tibet) is also debatable. After all, the package formula for solving the border dispute offered first by Zhou Enlai in 1960 and by Deng Xiaoping in 1979 did envisage the Chinese retaining the western sector and giving up its claims in the eastern sector.
Rich in biodiversity, Yunnan with a per-capita income similar to that of India and a population of the size of Punjab and Haryana combined, is particularly fascinating. China has officially designated 56 ethnic groups as minority nationalities. Of these gro- ups, the maximum number — 25 — are to be found in Yunnan alone, the ancestors of some of whom migrated to northeast India long ago. Yunnan was at the pivot of the southern Silk Route, and the city of Lijiang played a key role in Sino-Indian cultural history. Kunming is the home of the great eunuch Muslim admiral, Zheng He, who made seven epic sea voyages from Taiwan to the Persian Gulf and Africa, including repeated trips to Calicut. In more recent years, it was to Kunming that Dwarkanath Kotnis — immortalized in V. Shantaram’s 1946 classic, Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani — first went in 1937, dispatched by Jawaharlal Nehru as part of a medical relief mission. Kotnis is still a hero in China but largely forgotten in his home country. In 1992, the Chinese issued a stamp in his honour and in January 2001, the visiting Chinese leader, Li Peng, met his three sisters in Mumbai.
During 1942-44, the US air force regularly flew in food, medical and other supplies from Calcutta to Kunming over a treacherous Himalayan route that became internationally known as “The Hump”. This formed the backdrop to James Hilton’s haunting book, The Lost Horizon, that gave the world Shangri La. Zhongdian is now reckoned to be that haven of bliss and peace. In 1942-43 under the most harrowing of conditions, the US army, led by the colourful Joe Stilwell, constructed what has come to be known as the Stilwell Road. This ran from Ledo, now in Arunachal Pradesh, to Lashio in Myanmar and then on to Kunming. The approximately 1,700 kilometre-long road (of which about 60 km are in India, about 1,000 km in Myanmar and the rest in China) still exists, but in a state of extreme dilapidation.
Yunnan could well be India’s gateway into China’s south and northwest, which are already the focus of massive development programmes. Although the World Trade Organization is increasing the powers of the central government in Beijing, China remains a country where the provinces have great economic autonomy, much more than what Indian states enjoy. A few days back, a high-powered delegation from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan and a major centre for scholarship on India, was in India to solicit investments in information technology and other sectors, and next week, a team from Zhejiang province will come to woo investors in the automotive industry particularly. Doing business with China really is doing business with its provinces, a reality that is yet to dawn fully in this country. Four years after the Kunming Initiative was first unveiled, it remains essentially an academic exercise on our side. Now, we have an excuse since Bangladesh appears to be reluctant to provide transit to Calcutta. If “Y2K” (Yunnan to Kolkata) is not possible immediately, we should go ahead with providing connectivity of the Northeast to Myanmar and Yunnan, hoping that Bangladesh would come round at some stage. As Beijing has “allowed” Yunnan to take the leadership role in the Kunming Initiative, why not New Delhi give a similar role to West Bengal, Assam and other northeastern states' Similarly, in talks with Nepal on water management, why not Uttar Pradesh and Bihar take a more proactive role since their vital interests are involved' Subregional cooperation is not a recipe for the Balkanization of India, but it is a way of building new bridges, both physically and politically.