How does ‘free trade’ actually work in heavily-controlled border regions?


over the past couple of decades there
has been lot of media fanfare and some fear about the pace of rapid economic
change in Asia. In the name of development China and India are building
new border roads and reopening old border posts for increased trade
opportunities. You may think that opening borders for trade will create more
opportunities for economic growth but in this case it creates more limitations
for some people. This is to some extent a global phenomenon. My research looks at
how this works in the Himalayan Borderlands, between two states that are
swiftly becoming major players in the global economy. Are they opening it up or
is it all a charade? Working with two generations of traders who have sold and
purchased goods across Himalayan borders between the 1950s and now I ask: how does the so-called free trade work in a heavily controlled border region like
this one? this research was necessarily historical
and multi-sided. I spent time with elderly Tibetan traders who were the
kings of trade in the 1950s before the border closed in 1962. they brought sheep
wool and yak tales from Lhasa Tibet which were exported to buyers around the
world. In fact, the white yak tales were used for making beards for Santa Clauses
in malls which explains their popularity I also worked with the children of these
traders who resumed trading when the border between Tibet and India was
reopened in 2006. they were looking forward to reigniting economic
relationships across the border in 2006 however they found that the promises of
unlimited free trade across an open border we’re anything but. the flimsy old
barbed-wire boundary was taken away but it was replaced by hard 7-meter stone
walls. Indian traders were affected as well, they were only allowed to import 15
kinds of commodities from the China side the list of allowed goods was limited to
items from the past like yak tails and wool but no mobile phones or media
players. So opening a border often limits certain kinds of movement and it creates
more opportunities for state regulation moreover in contrast to the 1950s trade
was only allowed along a single route that couldn’t handle the monsoon rains
causing landslides that regularly wiped out the roads. so while a conventional
globalization narrative is often about increased connections and transnational
mobility, in fact the reality of cross-border trade is nothing like this.
traders are prone to being blocked but are also forced to divert around closed
borders. this is particularly the case for minority groups such as the Tibetan
traders, the kings of trade from the past many were unable to compete with Chinese
traders who could more easily navigate the new policies. still other Tibetan but
also Indian traders carved out new routes new markets or returned to the
barter system in order to survive. opening and closing borders and the
people who move around these restrictions present a human geography
of economic change that is often overlooked in the master narrative of
development in China and India. in fact, the global impact of these informal
economic processes in border areas is severely underestimated

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