Visa spat reveals instability of India-China relations

China issues stapled visas to persons from the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, leading to renewed questions about the future of relations between New Delhi and Beijing. The FBI arrest an allegedly Pakistan-backed Kashmiri lobbyist. In China's Xinjiang province, police forces clash with Uighurs said to have links with the East Turkistan Islamic Movement. India and the US meet for the second round of their strategic dialogue. All in today's security briefing.
Radu Nikolaus Botez
27 July 2011

Last Thursday, the Chinese embassy in New Delhi issued stapled visas to an Indian karate team from the north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh supposed to participate in a competition in Quanghou City. Stapled visas refer to visas issued on separate paper, not on the passport, and are thus interpreted as questioning India’s territorial sovereignty over the state. The team was prevented from boarding the plane to China as India does not recognize stapled visas.

China started issuing stapled visas to people from the disputed region of Kashmir in 2008, leading to strained ties with New Delhi. In the case of Arunachal Pradesh, entirely claimed by China which refers to the state as ‘Southern Tibet’, China only started issuing stapled visas to non-officials earlier this year while officials can still travel to China without a visa.

India has repeatedly expressed its discontent which the Chinese policy and raised the issue in bilateral talks with Beijing. Following the recent incident, The Times of India quoted government sources as saying that India was ‘still searching for a de-stapler. We are obviously not amused by the fact that they continue to issue stapled visas for our nationals.’

India and China embarked on a regular defence dialogue in 2007, having conducted two joint-exercises so far. However, in 2010, India suspended the defence exchange programme when China refused to issue a visa to Lieutenant-General Baljit Singh Jaswal, head of the Northern Command, which is in charge of the disputed Kashmir region. Talks were resumed last month with the visit of an Indian military delegation to China. 

The openSecurity verdict: China's policy of issuing stapled visas or no visas at all to Indian citizens from certain states has been a considerable irritant to relations between the two neighbours that fought a short war in 1962, an event still present in the mind of many in the Indian defence community. Traditionally neutral to the territorial dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, officials in New Delhi saw the issuing of stapled visas as an indication of a change in China's position. While Beijing never announced it would change its visa policy, no stapled visas had been issued since November 2010 in what was perceived as an attempt to ease tensions. The resumption of defence talks earlier this year, with exchanges at ministerial level expected to take place in the following months is a positive development. Although unlikely to lead to any breakthrough, a regular exchange of views could permit the development of mutual understanding, thus reducing misperceptions and distrust that have overshadowed ties since the 1962 war.

Regarded as a decisive relationship in the time ahead, the question of whether the two emerging powers will cooperate or compete has been frequently debated in recent years. Given China's attempts to strengthen ties with India's neighbours in the Indian Ocean Region, a stratefy labelled the 'String of Pearls' by a US Department of Defence subcontractor in 2004, and its 'all-weather relationship' with Pakistan, fears of 'strategic encirclement' have spread in New Delhi. An influence-seeking game between the two is taking place in states such as Nepal and the Maldives, while questions also exist over how India and China will deal with each other in the Indian Ocean, seen by some as 'India's Ocean' and of crucial importance to both countries due to the strategic sea lines of communication that traverse it.

However, China has shown some restraint in the past, taking a neutral stance during the 1999 Kargil War between India and Pakistan. Following the killing of Osama bin Laden earlier this year, and the subsequent deterioration of US-Pakistan relations, the Pakistani prime minister hailed his country's 'all-weather friend' China during a visit to Beijing. While China is continuing to support Pakistan as it has in the past, it seems unlikely that it will seek to replace the US in Islamabad, indicating, amongst other things, China’s awareness of Indian concerns with regard to its role in Pakistan.

Relations between India and China have been rather rocky over the past decades and irritants will continue to be felt by both parties. Whether or not these flare up into a more pronounced conflict, the relationship's significance to the future of the Asia-Pacific region is unquestionable.

Pakistan-backed Kashimiri lobbyist arrested in US

Last Tuesday, the FBI arrested Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai, executive director of the Kashmiri American Council (KAC), on charges that he and a second US citizen of Pakistani origin conspired illegally as Pakistani agents. According to US authorities, Fai had received at least $4 million in funds from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) over two decades in order to influence US lawmakers on Kashmir, a territory disputed between India and Pakistan. Under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, those seeking to influence US policy or law need to disclose their full identity.

The Pakistani embassy in Washington replied to the arrest by stating that Fai ‘was not a Pakistani citizen and the government and embassy of Pakistan have no knowledge of the case involving him.’ Different factions from Kashmir have condemned the arrest, stating that it was the ‘result of India’s diplomatic efforts and conspiratorial plans.’ 

US-Pakistan relations reached a new low when Washington announced it would suspend aid payment earlier this month. The arrest of Fai is interpreted as a response to the arrests of people believed to have worked with US intelligence in Pakistan as well as to the high anti-American rhetoric of the past weeks, indicating that the recent visit of ISI chief Lieutenant-General Shuja Pasha to the US has not helped improve ties between the two countries or their respective intelligence agencies.

Uighur separatists blamed for attack on police station in China’s Xinjiang province

Last Monday, a group of armed attackers stormed a police station in the Chinese province of Xinjiang and took hostages, four of which were killed, according to reports by Chinese state media which has labelled the event as 'an organized terrorist attack'. However, the Germany-based World Uighur Congress, an exile group, contradicted official accounts, saying police opened fire on a peaceful protest in support of people allegedly detained in the police station, killing twenty and arresting others.

Some observers see links between the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a militant Muslim separatist group calling for an independent state called East Turkestan and the recent events in Xinjiang province. The US listed ETIM as a terrorist organization in 2002 following pressure from Beijing but experts are divided on the extent of ETIM's activities and on whether it represents a significant threat. China is alleged to exaggerate terrorist activity to justify crackdowns on anti-government protest.

India, US meet for second round of strategic dialogue

Last week, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton paid a three-day visit to India during which the second annual meeting of the Indo-US strategic dialogue took place. While many issues were addressed, terrorism, the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as the 2008 nuclear deal between the two countries, were high on the agenda.

Addressing recent development in Pakistan, Clinton said the US did ‘not believe that there are any terrorists who should be given safe haven or a free pass by any government […]’ while assuring its Indian counter-part that the US would continue to ‘pressure [Pakistan] as hard as possible.’ Clinton also called for India to take a leadership role in the Asia-Pacific, a statement met with a harsh response from Pakistani Prime Minister Gilani who stated that his country does not want any ‘chieftain’ in the region.

The general impression of the talks, as conveyed by the Indian press, is that no significant progress has been made during the strategic dialogue: only two agreements, one on air safety, the other on cyber security have been reached. More pressing issues such as India’s liability law, which makes suppliers of nuclear equipment potentially liable and thus may deter US companies seeking to invest in India, have been discussed without reaching any significant breakthrough. 

The relationship between the two countries is seen as aiming at helping both countries deter what they perceive as an increasingly assertive China in the Asia-Pacific region. 

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