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Defence ministry wary about reopening of Nathu la pass

Defence ministry wary about reopening of Nathu la pass

The defence ministry has expressed reservations on an initiative to expand the basket of goods traded with China at the Nathu la border post in Sikkim.

It is currently in talks with the commerce ministry, which wants to step up trade.

“The defence ministry basically wants limited trade to avoid large-scale movement of Chinese traders. I have said that the expanded list will only ensure trade in more serious items but not change the nature of limited trade," said minister of state for commerce and industry Jairam Ramesh.

His ministry wants to expand the list of items that can be exported through Nathu la from 29 to 53, but the defence establishment has indicated that anything more than limited border trade may create “military concern" in “sensitive border areas".

Small-scale trade via the 14,000ft high mountain pass on India’s border with China, was allowed in July 2006.

The old fear that Nathu la could lead to unchecked entry of Chinese into India and eventually compromise defence establishments has resurfaced at the defence ministry. Unchecked entry would mean “redeploying military assets in the state", the defence ministry has said.

To address these concerns, the commerce ministry has assured that even if the number of items traded goes up as proposed, it will not largely alter the nature of trading.

“What is now being proposed is still limited border trade and it has nothing to do with transit trade or even normal MFN (most favoured nation) trade," Ramesh wrote in an 11 July letter to the defence minister . India currently exports only agricultural implements, blankets, copper products, clothes, bicycles, coffee, tea, barley, rice, cigarettes, snuff, watches, wheat, stationery, spices, canned food, jaggery, tobacco, dry fruits, dyes and other minor items to China through Nathu la.

The commerce ministry proposes that chillies, medicinal plants, beads, silk textiles, jam, pickles, butter, meat, maize, cardamom, oranges, orchids, biscuits, prayer wheels, incense sticks and butter lamp oil be also included.

“You will notice from the list of items that are proposed to be included that there is hardly any security angle," Ramesh has said in the letter.

According to Major General (retd) Ashok Mehta, a week-long battle fought at Nathu la during the 1967 war with China has not been forgotten.

Mehta said he believes that the historical concerns still weigh heavily with the defence establishment, especially in view of the elaborate build-up of infrastructure by China in Tibet. “If you open Nathu la, you cannot stop people (from China) coming in, you will have to allow all, not some people," he said.

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