By Shaikh Azizur Rahman
Calcutta, July 3: As India and China prepare to reopen a Himalayan pass on the legendary Silk Road trade route between East and West this week, some Indian military experts warn China could use the pass to extend its spy network deep into India.
Nathu La pass used to be the lifeblood of business between India and China, accounting for 80 per cent of the border trade.
In 1959, the Dalai Lama crossed it, fleeing Tibet to exile in India. Then, a brief but bloody high-altitude war in 1962 over a border dispute led to the closing of the 4,500-metre high pass that runs between India's present state of Sikkim and Tibet.
Now, with relations thawing between the world's most populous nations, Nathu La is to reopen Thursday. Commercial vehicles are all set to start trundling across the pass.
Businessmen are excited at the prospects of border trade. Pro-Chinese communists and many other Indian political leaders welcome the reopening of the pass, considering it a vital step in the normalization of relations between Beijing and New Delhi.
But security and strategic affairs experts warn that India's counterintelligence costs will rise dramatically after Nathu La opens because of its proximity to a wide swath of eastern and northeastern India, where Beijing is alleged to have stoked insurgency for decades.
"Chinese spies and agents on subversive missions will find it easier to slip in through Nathu La," said Maloy Krishna Dhar, a retired joint director of India's Federal Intelligence Bureau and author of Open Secrets: India's Intelligence Unveiled.
"India is inviting trouble. The Chinese will stoke insurgency, monitor troop deployment and movement along the disputed border and gain access to vital installations like refineries and highly sensitive warfare training centres."
Another security expert, Professor Brahma Chellaney from New Delhi's Centre for Policy Research, said: "At one level, India and China are cozying up to each other and talking of the 21st century as an Asian century. But the grim reality, which New Delhi is inexplicably trying to shrug off, is that both the Communist party of China and People's Liberation Army are implacably hostile to India beneath the veneer of bonhomie."
Economists, however, believe reopening the pass will not only change the economic landscape of underdeveloped Sikkim. They argue that flourishing trade along the pass could well create a new trade bloc in Asia to rival Europe's and North America's.
"Nathu La has the potential to bring in an unprecedented economic development in the region, which includes the Greater Mekong region of Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, the eastern and northeastern states of India, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Yunnan province of China. The pass will provide the key connectivity to develop that trade bloc," said Indian Chamber of Commerce secretary general Najeeb Arif. "Such a trade bloc ... could pose a formidable economic rival to the European Union and North American Free Trade Area."
Sikkim's government and business community had high hopes of an economic upturn after then-prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee agreed in 2003 to a Chinese proposal to reopen Nathu La. Then a Congress party alliance came to power in '04 and military intelligence officials objected to the reopening, voicing grave security concerns.
Pressure from powerful business and political lobbies put the pass back on the agenda. New Delhi agreed to reopen Nathu La, overruling its own defence experts who continue to express their concerns publicly.
"There is no question of troops along the India-China border being reduced after the reopening. We will not lower our guard," said Lt.-Gen. Arvind Sharma, the army commander responsible for the defence of eastern and northeastern India.
"Trade is one thing. National security another."
China and India recorded close to $21 billion in bilateral trade in 2005, up 37.5 per cent from 2004, according to Chinese statistics. Volume is expected to top $22 billion this year.