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Diplomacy: An Overwritten Slate

September 14, 2010

The visa denial issue opens old wounds, new ideas
around the India- China thrust and parry
Pranay Sharma
Outlook (India)
September 20, 2010 edition

The Chimes Of China

* The provocation Beijing denies visa to Lt Gen
B.S. Jaswal, says his command includes "disputed
J&K." Manmohan Singh talks of new Chinese assertion.
* The problem India is confused about China's
intent. Relations warmed up post-Copenhagen
conference. But strain surfaces again over the visa issue.
* The prognosis Is there a method to China's
behaviour? Yes, say diplomats and analysts. But
there are only theories, no clear-cut answers.

The motivation China sees India as a potential
rival, an emerging power wishing to play a global
role. So Beijing's decisions are aimed at locking
India into South Asia and knocking out future
competition.Therefore, through the visa issue China....

* Wants to tell the world that Kashmir remains
disputed, that it's India's old problem
* Endorses Pakistan's line; inserts a hyphen between India and Pakistan.
* Is asking India to think of concessions in the
eastern sector, where most of the disputed area
is in India's control. Remember, Jaswal's command
overlaps with the disputed western sector, where China has the upper hand.
* Plays the Kashmir card to show its disapproval
of India's growing proximity with the United States.

China's other, long-term steps to box India in

* Strengthening military aid to Pakistan, helping
it in its missile, nuclear programmes
* Investing heavily in building port facilities
and infrastructure in Pakistan, Myanmar, Sri
Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh to expand Chinese
influence in India’s immediate neighbourhood
* Increasing defence preparedness in the Indian
Ocean, along the Line of Actual Control, to unsettle India

***

When China refused a visa to Lt Gen B.S. Jaswal,
who heads the northern command, on the
astonishing plea that his jurisdiction includes
the ‘disputed’ Kashmir area, officials in New
Delhi were both dismayed and perplexed. To them,
it was obvious Beijing was feigning a hiccup to
bring to a hurried end the months of warmth India
and China had shared following their cooperation
at the Copenhagen Conference on climate change.
Their conclusion couldn’t be faulted—after all,
Jaswal’s visit was supposed to be the sixth such
military exchange between India and China
beginning 2006, the year in which Chinese
President Hu Jintao and Indian Prime Minister
Manmohan Singh decided to initiate this
confidence-building measure (CBM). What was
Beijing’s sudden compulsion to disrupt this arrangement?

Officials in New Delhi were perplexed because
they couldn’t quite comprehend, for sure, the
signal Beijing was transmitting through its
provocative decision of not granting a visa to Lt
Gen Jaswal. A senior Indian diplomat told
Outlook, "Even in the best of times, it is
difficult to fathom what China is thinking. It
gets worse when China is on the rise.” China’s
star is surely in the ascendant—it is now the
second largest economy in the world and, unlike
the United States, not distracted in securing its
interests worldwide, in the pursuit of its ultimate goal of world domination.

But a China on the rise is also an insecure
China; it believes the world, particularly the
US, will conspire to abort its ultimate quest.
Should India then become the West’s Trojan horse
in countering China? India, theoretically, fits
the bill for that role -- it too is experiencing
an astonishing economic growth, entertains the
desire to extend its role beyond the region, and
other powers sing paeans to it. Officials in New
Delhi feel China—known to think through the foggy
future decades earlier—refused to grant a visa to
the general as part of an exquisitely calibrated
plan to bog India down in South Asia, and nix its global dreams.

Even Manmohan has joined the sceptics on China,
those who look askance at Beijing’s every
decision. This turnaround is surprising, for the
prime minister has repeatedly talked of there
being "enough space for both India  and China" to
grow. In an informal chat with newspaper editors
this week, he’s said to have talked of China’s
new assertion, its plan to keep India at a
“low-level equilibrium”. This sentiment finds its
echo in what foreign secretary Nirupama Rao (a
former ambassador to China) told Outlook, “We do
not deny the complexities inherent in the
Indo-China relationship, which is an important
one." Claiming India’s approach has been to
handle all outstanding issues through an "open
and frank" manner, Rao added in good measure,
“Every relationship has to be built by taking
each other’s sensitivities into account. It cannot be a one-way street.”

China-Pakistan military collaboration

But what exactly is China’s gameplan? The
Sino-sceptics have floated many theories on the
visa controversy. For one, they say the refusal
to grant visa was the decision of China’s
People’s Liberation Army, which is keen to host
generals from the eastern and not the western
sector of the disputed border. Why? Since India
is in possession of much of the disputed
territory in the east, unlike in the west, the
Chinese want to know the measures New Delhi has
taken there to stabilise the Indian side of the
border. But Jaswal is from the western sector of
the border, where much of the disputed sreas are
under China’s control. In denying visa to him,
China is saying it doesn’t want to talk about the
western sector. Second, through the visa
controversy, China wants to convey that Kashmir
remains disputed, reinsert the hyphen between
India and Pakistan that the US had taken out, and
entangle India in problems severe enough to
prevent it from playing a role beyond the region.

However, Hu Shisheng, director of South Asia in
the Beijing-based Chinese Institute for
Contemporary International Relations (CICIR),
insists that China always considered the Kashmir
issue a dispute between India and Pakistan. China
claims it has been stapling visas to the
passports (instead of stamping them) of Indian
nationals from J&K for a few years now, but India
discovered this only last year and protested
vociferously. Explains Hu, “If China stamps the
visa directly on Indian passports, it will be
regarded by the international community that
China accepts that there is no Kashmir dispute,
which is not the truth. The reason behind the
Chinese practice is to not make the Kashmir issue more complicated."

It’s also said China refused a visa to the
general as an expression of displeasure with the
Indian leadership’s recent engagement with the
Dalai Lama. Interestingly, the Chinese decision
was conveyed to the Indians around July 23-24, a
week after Nirupama Rao met the Dalai Lama in
Dharamshala. Another section feels the pro-US
lobby in the Indian establishment stoked the visa
controversy, leaking the news about the Chinese
refusal to the media a month after it was
conveyed to New Delhi. Its reason: raise fears
about China’s intent and create a public opinion
favourable for defence minister A.K. Antony to
sign three pending agreements that would forge deeper Indo-US defence ties.

The visa controversy apart, the US factor does
determine Sino-India relations. Prof John Garver
of the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta,
says China began to harden its position on India
because of New Delhi’s growing proximity with
Washington. In 2005, says Garver, Premier Wen
Jiabao entered into a strategic partnership with
India; he also brought a map of China to New
Delhi showing Sikkim as part of India and signed
an agreement on “the guiding principles and
political parameters” for resolving the festering
border dispute. But then, India and the US signed
a framework agreement on defence cooperation,
began talks on the nuclear deal and undertook
joint military and naval exercises. Says Garver,
"Beijing interpreted this as a rebuff to its
overtures to develop friendly relations.” It’s
around this time that China began to issue
stapled visas to Indian nationals in J&K, thus
conveying the subtle message -- what Washington
can resolve Beijing can unravel.

"India will understand that the US will never
respect India. It risks losing respect from both
the US and China." -- Dingli Shen, Fudan University

"Beijing has interpreted India’s new partnership
with the US as a rebuff to its overtures to
develop friendly ties." --John Garver, Professor, Georgia Tech

"Misgivings about Sino-India relations are
worsened by a lack of significant knowledge about
each other." -- Rana Mitter, Professor, Oxford University

"Every relationship has to be built by taking
mutual sensitivities into account. It cannot be a
one-way street." --Nirupama Rao, Foreign Secretary, India

"China staples visas to passports of Indians from
J&K in order to not make the Kashmir issue more
complicated." -- Hu Shisheng, Commentator, CICIR 

The US factor has been acknowledged by none other
than former foreign secretary Shyam Saran. In a
recent article in a journal, Saran notes, "The US
understood that even though India could never be
an ally, it would nevertheless pursue, in its own
interest, policies that would create a strong
countervailing presence in the region supportive of the US objectives."

Beijing hasn’t yet come to a conclusion that
Indo-US relations are aimed at curbing its
influence, but have definite apprehensions about
it. CICIR’s Ma Jiali, a well-known commentator on
South Asia, told Outlook, "India is developing
its relations with the US and so is China. But
Beijing wouldn’t like to see any manoeuvering to
check its rise. It wants India to follow an
independent foreign policy." Fudan University’s
Dingli Shen, similarly, cautions, “India will
understand that the US will never respect India.
It didn’t respect India even in the past. If
India does play the US game, then it will end up
losing respect in both the US as well as China."

Such comments --and controversies such as the
visa one --are perceived by some as China’s
attempt to unsettle India. Says Garver, "China is
waging psychological warfare against India. It is
trying to give a clear signal that unless India
adopts a friendlier stance towards China, there
could be problems.” But the word “friendlier" is
essentially a euphemism for India accepting China’s superiority.
Chinese experts at Gwadar port, Pakistan
(Reuters, From Outlook, September 20, 2010)

But if China suspects India’s intent, then New
Delhi too is guilty of the same. It has grave
reservations about Beijing’s forays in South
Asia. From Nepal and Bangladesh to Sri Lanka and
Pakistan, Beijing has been building ports, roads
and rail links. This has led many to argue about
China’s ulterior motive of encircling India, of
undermining New Delhi’s influence in its
neighbourhood. But such Indian analysts forget
the profound truth—just as India must promote its
own interests through a forging of better ties
with the US, China enjoys the legitimate right to
nurture its economic interests in South Asia.

These mutual misgivings stem from the fact that
Indo-Sino relations are negotiated in a context
of flux -- a rapidly changing world. It’s made
worse, says Prof Rana Mitter, a Chinese expert at
Oxford University, because "a fundamental problem
in Sino-Indian relations is the lack of
significant knowledge about each other." This
provokes displays of insensitivity -- manifest in
China’s refusal to issue a visa to Jaswal.
Similarly, the Indian media went to town about
the debate the Chinese newspaper, People’s Daily,
conducted on the possibility of China opting for
a limited war with India. That the readers
rejected the proposition was mentioned only in passing.

As China continues to blow hot, blow cold with
India, befuddling the leadership in New Delhi,
Union HRD minister Kapil Sibal and surface
transport minister Kamal Nath will visit Beijing
in forthcoming weeks. India, like its neighbours,
wants to attract Chinese investment. Yet as the
two countries seek to cooperate, there will
remain persistent worries about whether they can
rise simultaneously without friction.
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