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China opens a new front in Kashmir

October 21, 2009

By Sudha Ramachandran
Asia Times
October 21, 2009

BANGALORE -- India and China appear to have
opened a new front - Kashmir - in their ongoing war of words.

While India has warned China against involvement
in projects in Pakistan-administered Kashmir,
Beijing seems to be adopting a new, provocative
line on Kashmir with regard to India.

For years, China kept up a careful balancing act
between India and Pakistan on the divided Kashmir
issue, even endorsing - on occasion - India's
position. It is now depicting the Indian state of
Jammu and Kashmir as a sovereign entity.

According to a Kathmandu datelined Indo-Asian
News Service report, media kits providing "basic
information" to journalists visiting Tibet depict
Kashmir as a country separate from India. Tibet
"borders with India, Nepal, Myanmar and the Kashmir area", the handouts say.

This comes close on the heels of a controversy
over the Chinese Embassy in Delhi issuing
separate visas to Indian passport holders from
Indian-administered Kashmir. Instead of stamping
the passport with a visa, as is the norm with
Indian citizens, Kashmiri students and
businessmen traveling to China have had their
visas stamped on a separate paper stapled to the passport.

This has raised hackles in Delhi.

After all, issuing visas on a separate paper is
not done without a reason. It is sometimes done
to prevent detection of a person's travel to the
country. Israel for instance does not stamp visas
in a passport in order to protect visitors from
being denied entry to other countries that regard
a visit to Israel as a disqualification for a
visa. It is done too when a country wants to
avoid extending official recognition to another
country's control over territory it believes is disputed.

Hitherto, it was only passports of travelers from
Arunachal Pradesh, a state in the Indian
northeast over which China lays claim and briefly
occupied in a 1962 war, that the Chinese avoided
stamping with their official seal. Indian
passport holders from Arunachal visiting China
were issued visas on paper stapled to the
passport. Now that has been extended to those from Kashmir.

By issuing Kashmiris a visa different from that
of other Indians, is China now questioning
Kashmir's status as an integral part of India? By
not affixing its official seal on the passports
of Kashmiri Indians, is China avoiding endorsing
the Indian citizenship of Kashmiris?

Sino-Indian relations have deteriorated
considerably in recent months. China has been
mounting pressure on Delhi over Arunachal Pradesh.

Reports in the Indian media have drawn attention
to growing Chinese incursions into Indian
territory, particularly into Arunachal.

In recent months, Beijing has been protesting
India's sovereignty over the state in various
ways. It sought to block India's application for
a loan from the Asian Development Bank that
included funding for developmental projects in
Arunachal Pradesh. And it has protested the
proposed visit of exiled Tibetan leader, the
Dalai Lama, to the state in November. More
recently, when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan
Singh visited the state to campaign for his party
in state assembly elections there, the Chinese
Foreign Ministry protested with a statement that
said it was "strongly dissatisfied".

Indian officials point out that China is "opening
the Kashmir front just to pressure India on the
border question". The entire Sino-Indian frontier
is disputed and the two are seeking to negotiate
a settlement. Talks over almost three decades
have yielded agreement on guiding principles and parameters for the talks.

China's position on Kashmir has undergone many
twists and turns. From 1964 to 1979 (when its
relations with India were largely icy following
the border war), China supported the right of the
Kashmiri people to self-determination. As
relations with India improved in the 1980s, it
moved away from this line and said that the
Kashmir issue was a bilateral one between India
and Pakistan that should be solved peacefully. In
an attempt to straddle the Indian and Pakistani
positions, it called for settlement of the
problem in the spirit of the 1972 Simla Agreement
and in accordance with United Nations resolutions.

In the 1990s, as Sino-Indian rapprochement grew,
China moved away from endorsing the Pakistani
position on Kashmir. It was opposed to
Islamabad's attempts at internationalizing the
issue. And in December 1996, during his visit to
the subcontinent, president Jiang Zemin
explicitly expressed support for the Indian
approach of addressing India-Pakistan disputes
through "consultations and negotiations".

This was taken further during the Kargil conflict
between India and Pakistan in 1999 when China
called on Pakistan to withdraw its troops from
the Indian side of the Line of Control (LoC) that
divides the two Kashmirs. In doing so, it was
endorsing the LoC as the de facto border between India and Pakistan.

That position on Kashmir is now changing.

An Indian official, who spoke to Asia Times
Online on condition of anonymity, dismissed
China's recent moves on Kashmir as a "pressure
tactic, nothing more". "China cannot afford
endorsing independence for Kashmir when it has to
contend with its own restive,
independence-seeking Muslim population in Xinjiang," he said.

What is becoming apparent in the ongoing war of
words is that India, after years of buckling to
Chinese pressure, seems to be standing up to it, delivering punch for punch.

Close on the heels of Beijing's objections to the
Indian prime minister's visit to Arunachal, India
struck back. The vice chief of the Indian Air
Force, P K Barbora, quietly raised the T-word -
Tibet. "We have never said anything about China
opening air bases in Tibet ... and they are
definitely expanding their airfields. I don't
think they should say anything about our ALGs
[advanced landing grounds] on our side," he said.

The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) also hit
back. It objected to Chinese involvement in
projects in Pakistan-administered Kashmir and
warned that this would impact Sino-Indian ties in the long run.

In August, during Pakistan President Asif Ali
Zardari's visit to China, China and Pakistan
signed a memorandum of understanding on building
a 7,000-megawatt hydropower project in Bunji in
Pakistani Kashmir. The two countries are also
working to upgrade the strategic Karakoram
Highway, which runs from Kashgar in China's
Xinjiang province through Gilgit and Bunji in
Pakistani Kashmir up to Havelin near Abbotabad in Pakistan.

Soon after, the MEA lodged a protest over the
hydro project at Bunji with Pakistan's deputy
high commissioner, Riffat Masood, in New Delhi.
Its high commission in Islamabad, too, lodged a
formal protest with Pakistan's Foreign Office. At
that time, however, India did not raise the matter with the Chinese.

In the month since, with relations with China
deteriorating considerably, Delhi decided to
punch back. "We hope that the Chinese side will
take a long-term view of India-China relations,
and cease such activities in areas illegally
occupied by Pakistan," the MEA said in a statement last week.

These are strong words for a government that has
generally been accused of being timid in dealing
with China. But will the shedding of diffidence
last? The newfound toughness in its words at
least will be put to the test soon.

The Dalai Lama's week-long visit to Arunachal is
due to begin on November 8, when he will land in
Tawang, the main bone of contention between India
and China. Chinese pressure on India is bound to
mount in the coming weeks. Whether India will
resist the pressure or succumb to it, as it has
in the past, will be keenly watched.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.
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