Originally Published 2004-10-11 04:18:23 Published on Oct 11, 2004
When the Indian establishment serenades Governor of China¿s Xinjiang province Ismail Tiliwaldi in the capital next week, it will revive deeply embedded memories from the past¿and hold a promise to a bold new future.
Red carpet for China's Xinjiang Governor
When the Indian establishment serenades Governor of China's Xinjiang province Ismail Tiliwaldi in the capital next week, it will revive deeply embedded memories from the past-and hold a promise to a bold new future. 

That Tiliwaldi will be here at the invitation of the Foreign Office-the first-ever visit by a Xinjiang Governor-suggests that New Delhi has given up its traditional defensiveness about Xinjiang and is now ready for an expansive engagement with a region, just north of Jammu and Kashmir. 

This new enthusiasm for cooperation also unveils another layer in the geopolitics of J&K and opens the door for a transformation of the geo-economics of inner Asia. 

The closest parallel that would help explain the political significance of Tiliwaldi's visit would be, say, a trip to Beijing by the Chief Minister of J&K, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed! 

For, this visit raises the prospect of renewed economic and cultural contact between India and the region, once known as Kashgar. Although Urumqi is the capital of Xinjiang, it's Kashgar and its environs that stoke Indian nostalgia. 

Trade caravans plied the routes between Leh and Kashgar well into the middle of the last century. Traders from as far down as Amritsar used to benefit from this commerce. After the withdrawal of the Indian trade mission from Kashgar in the 1950s, Xinjiang tended to recede from India's consciousness. 

However, over the last few years, New Delhi has been trying to get senior Communist party and Government officials from Xinjiang to visit India. In fact, Indian Ambassador to China Nalin Surie has been in Xinjiang the last few days giving final touches to Tiliwaldi's visit. 

If the visit is a landmark, its potential is no less. Tiliwaldi and his Indian interlocutors could also begin a preliminary discussion about cooperation in countering the threats of terrorism and religious extremism that Xinjiang shares with India. 

Xinjiang's geography also makes this visit significant. Often called the pivot of Asia, Xinjiang shares a border with J&K. The Aksai Chin plateau, an extension of Ladakh to the east, is now part of Xinjiang. So is the Shaksgam valley in J&K ceded by Pakistan to China in 1963. 

The so-called Northern Areas of J&K-Gilgit and Baltistan-now form a bridge between Pakistan and Xinjiang. More important, after decades of complaining about the Sino-Pak nexus in J&K, India now has an opportunity to reinject itself into the high politics of inner Asia. 

The rapidly improving relationship with Beijing has allowed New Delhi to consider stepping up its trade and cultural ties with Xinjiang, despite major territorial disputes. Xinjiang which shares borders with Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India has begun to boom amidst massive Chinese investments in infrastructure and the development of hydrocarbons. 

China is also seeking rapid economic integration and physical connectivity between Xinjiang and the neighbouring countries. As China globalises Xinjiang, Kashgar is all set to regain its standing at the heart of the revived Silk Road. 

Restoring connectivity to Kashgar, also called Kashi, should be a natural strategic objective of India. Kashgar could also become India's gateway to the former Soviet Central Asian Republics. New Delhi could head east in Ladakh and connect up with Tibet-Xinjiang Highway and access Kashgar to the north west. 

It could head west into Pak-Occupied Kashmir, traverse the Karakoram Highway between Pakistan and Xinjiang to Kashgar. Given the sensitive territorial questions in play, Indian decisions to use these routes would require strong political will. 

India could also go north into Chinese Central Asia by developing the access road to the Karakoram pass. This would involve massive investment. While these moves might be some distance away, the first step would be to set up air links between New Delhi and Kashgar. 

In less than two hours, you could then be flying from Delhi into the riches of the ancient Silk Road and the allure of the new. If the talks with Governor Tiliwaldi go well, the prospect of Indian businessmen, pilgrims and tourists returning to Kashgar need not be a dream. 

The author is Professor of South Asian studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and Advisor, US Studies Programme, Observer Research Foundation.

* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.
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