China has made a seemingly interesting move on Arunachal Pradesh, the meaning and message of which has to be carefully analysed instead of treating it with suspicion as another anti-Indian move or as connected to the recent change in its policy relating to Jammu & Kashmir (J&K). An interaction on this subject between the officials of the two countries would add value to the analysis.
2. Arunachal Pradesh in our North-East is an integral part of India, but China does not recognize it to be so. It calls it southern Tibet and has been insisting that historically this area belonged to China and hence should revert to China. The border dispute between the two countries arising from the conflicting claims of the two sides has been under negotiation between designated special representatives of the two Prime Ministers. There has been no transparency either from Beijing or from New Delhi as to how the negotiations are going on. The general impression in the community of non-governmental analysts is that there has been no forward movement.
3. In the meanwhile, the two sides have been strengthening their strategic infrastructure in their territories in this area—- China in its so-called Tibet Autonomous Region and India in Arunachal Pradesh. China has made better progress in this regard than India. It has constructed a railway line to Lhasa from Qinghai and has now undertaken its extension towards the Arunachal border. There is an unconfirmed report that it is planning to construct a second line from Qinghai to Lhasa to be dedicated to freight movement. It has strengthened its civil aviation infrastructure in Tibet. It has built more airports and is trying to make Tibet the hub of aviation traffic in Western China.
4. Simultaneously, there has been a departure from Beijing’s past practice of avoiding any major military exercise in Tibet in order not to create unnecessary alarm in India. The first pan-China exercise (Stride–2009) conducted by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in August 2009 did not include the Chengdu Military Region whose jurisdiction covers Tibet. For the first time, one saw three military exercises relating to Tibet in 2010—- two by the PLA (Air Force) in Tibet itself and one by the Army involving the Chengdu and Lanzhou Military Regions and co-ordinated by the Beijing Military Region. The Chengdu and Lanzhou Military regions share the responsibility for the defence of Tibet and Xinjiang. Any anxiety over causing concern in India is no longer an inhibiting factor influencing the timing and nature of China’s military exercises relating to Tibet.
5. In the diplomatic field, China lost no opportunity of asserting its claim to Arunachal Pradesh. It continued with its policy of not recognizing the Indian passports of the residents of Arunachal Pradesh and not issuing them visas—- regular or stapled— to visit China for official or non-official purposes. It protested every time an Indian dignitary or His Holiness the Dalai Lama visited Arunachal Pradesh—particularly Tawang. It strongly opposed the Asian Development Bank funding electric power projects in Arunachal Pradesh.
6. At a time, when it appeared to be becoming increasingly rigid in its attitude on Arunachal Pradesh, it has shown a seeming ray of flexibility by issuing stapled visas on Indian passports to two sports officials of Arunachal Pradesh to enable them to attend a sports-related event in China. Indian Weightlifting Federation’s Joint Secretary Abraham K Techi and a weightlifter, both residents of Arunachal Pradesh, were stopped recently by the Immigration at the New Delhi airport because their Indian passports had Chinese visas on plain papers stapled to their passports. They were going to Fujian in China at the invitation of the Chinese Weightlifting Association President Menguang to attend a weight-lifting contest from January 15 to17. The immigration did not allow them to board the flight in accordance with the practice of not allowing Indian citizens to travel to China with stapled and not regular Chinese visas.
7. The media has quoted a spokesman of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) as stating that India considers Arunachal Pradesh as an integral part of India and has conveyed to the Chinese side that a uniform process of issue of visas to Indian citizens be followed regardless of the applicant’s ethnicity or place of domicile.
8. According to the Press Trust of India (PTI), an unidentified official of the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi, when contacted by it on this subject, stated as follows on January 13: “There is no change in our visa policy for residents of Arunachal Pradesh. China does not issue visas to officials from that state and will still not do it. For non-officials, we only issue stapled visas,”
9. It is not clear whether the agency has quoted the Chinese official correctly. It is unusual for a Chinese official to refer to the state as Arunachal Pradesh. Normally, he would have said so-called Arunachal Pradesh. His comments indicate that the issue of stapled visas to two residents of the State was a deliberate act and not the result of any mistake committed by the visa officer of the Chinese Embassy. The instructions to issue the stapled visas must have come from the Chinese Foreign Office in Beijing whose prior clearance is necessary for the issue of visas to persons traveling to China in response to a local invitation. Only for tourists no prior clearance is required.
10. In the past, Beijing did not recognize the legality of the Indian passports of the residents of Arunachal Pradesh. That was why it was refusing to issue them any visa—-regular on the passport or on a stapled plain piece of paper. By issuing the stapled visas to the two sports personalities of Arunachal Pradesh holding Indian passports, it has implicitly recognized the validity of their Indian passports. This does not mean any change in its claim of sovereignty over the territory. It only means it is trying to adopt a more flexible line in asserting its sovereignty.
11. How should India react to it: Reject the stapled visas even in respect of the residents of Arunachal Pradesh as it has been doing in respect of the residents of J&K? Or adopt a more flexible line in respect of the residents of Arunachal Pradesh without linking them to the residents of J&K? Encourage the Chinese to continue with their flexibility and expand it? These questions should be carefully considered by the Government of India before deciding on its response.
12. In an interesting dispatch in the “Times of India” of January 14, its Beijing correspondent Saibal Dasgupta has said as follows: “China’s decision to issue stapled visas to Arunachal Pradesh residents is a good omen, observers of India-China border negotiations said. It means China accepts people of Arunachal to be Indian citizens, which is major policy change for a country that describes it as its own province of “South Tibet”. “If this news is correct, it is a setback for our stand. Or, a major concession given to India,” Hu Shisheng, deputy director in the State-run Institute of South and Southeast Asian Studies, told TNN. Some Indian observers have taken a different view claiming that stapled visas were continuation of China’s policy of putting up obstacles in the way of a negotiated settlement of the boundary problem. But there are signs that the Indian government is secretly happy over the new development as China did not give any visas to residents of Arunachal earlier. “We have been saying that people of Arunachal Pradesh do not need any visa as it is part of China. If stapled visa has been given, there must be a mutual agreement between the two countries,” he said. There was a “slim chance” of stapled visas being issued by mistake by some official because it is a sensitive issue. “There must have been a change in policy for such a thing to happen” Hu said. He said the case of Arunachal should not be linked with Kashmir. Residents of Jammu and Kashmir are being given stapled visa because of the dispute between India and Pakistan. “China has said it is ready to change its policies and even redraw the border around Kashmir once India and Pakistan settle their disputes,” Hu said.”
13, Unless there has been a mistake somewhere in the Chinese visa-issuing hierarchy, this action of the Chinese Embassy is significant and needs an imaginative response from the Government of India. (16-1-11)
( The writer, Mr B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat,Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: email@example.com )