New Delhi and Beijing should not let visa and border disputes cloud bilateral cooperation
CHINA’S LATEST pinprick, of refusing visa to an Indian general because his jurisdiction includes the “disputed” Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) raises tricky questions. Given the high level of exchanges between the two countries, this was a new low.
Northern Command GOC-in-C Lt-General BS Jaswal was thwarted from leading the delegation to the fourth defence dialogue in Beijing. The Chinese took the untenable position that Gen Jaswal was “from the sensitive location of J&K” and that people from this part of the world “come with a different kind of visa”.
When New Delhi retaliated, suspending defence exchanges with China, few saw it as an over-reaction. In fact, some may view it as being too tame. Earlier pinpricks include questioning PM Manmohan Singh’s meeting with the Dalai Lama and their visits to Arunachal Pradesh; opposing Asian Development Bank projects in Arunachal; and denying visas to IAS probationers from Arunachal. In the matter of visas to J&K residents, instead of pasting them on passports, Beijing staples them; and stapled visas are not valid for travel. Repeated Indian protests on the issue have been in vain.
Why does China keep harping on J&K as a “sensitive location?” To underscore that it doesn’t accept it as a part of India? Or, in deference to ally Pakistan? Why allow such questions to be raised? Since these acts hurt China’s interest and image, what purpose do they serve?
Between those who root for China and those blindly opposed to it, there is a section that wants smooth relations, an end to disputes, peace, friendship and a productive partnership for recasting the global order, especially the UN and financial institutions. This section would be more put off by China’s provocative acts.
Not long before this, in early July, National Security Adviser (NSA) Shiv Shankar Menon was upbeat after his talks in Beijing. Menon’s mission came on the heels of visits by Foreign Minister SM Krishna and President Pratibha Patil. “I can’t see things which prevent us from working together,” Menon told journalists, emphasising that the rough patch of 2009 was behind us.
So what went wrong? The appointment of Menon as NSA, Special Representative for boundary talks and the PM’S Special Envoy, raised expectations of ties moving to a higher level. What happened is baffling. Why is Beijing unmindful of Indian sensitivities on Kashmir? Is there a divergence between the MEA and the MOD in dealing with Beijing? The Indo-China defence dialogue was intended to deepen trust. Now the dialogue has come unstuck.
Amidst this drama came The New York Times report of China’s military build-up in POK’S Gilgit-Baltistan region. Has Pakistan handed over the region’s strategic control to China? Neither the MEA nor the MOD is forthcoming. Whether because of this report or the uproar over the snub to Gen Jaswal, Beijing carries on as if nothing is amiss. It played down tensions and stressed the importance of continued bilateral cooperation.
In the fortnight after the incident, other Indo-China exchanges continued: the five-day Beijing International Book Fair with India as ‘the country of honour’, followed by two delegations to Beijing — the first from the Ministry of Environment and Forests and Wildlife Crime Control Bureau; the second, for reviving the Indo-China financial dialogue, to coordinate positions on reform of international financial institutions after three years.
The India-China relationship is complex. The idea of not letting the boundary issue vitiate other tracks of engagement isn’t working as expected. In fact, besides keeping alive the ‘boundary issue’, China is also baiting New Delhi on Pakistan’s disputes. If the boundary issue — in the form of stapled and denied visas — is not to cloud other areas of bilateral cooperation, then the periodic tamasha over visas to people from J&K and Arunachal should end once and for all.
Illustration: Anand Naorem