In Sino-Indian relations, it would appear that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Or do they?
2012 was still young when another ‘visa issue’ cropped up between China and India. This time the Chinese refused a visa to an Indian Air Force officer from Arunachal Pradesh slated to leave for China as part of a 30-member Indian military delegation. Contrary to expectations, however, the visit actually carried on with the delegation being halved in size and the IAF officer in question one of the 15 who were dropped. One can wonder about the wisdom of deliberately including an Arunachali in any delegation to China when the person is sure to run into a (great) wall. But perhaps this was, as is normal in the practice of statecraft, simply a testing of the waters?
It must be noted here that in the case of civilians from Arunachal, the Chinese had moved last year from saying no visa was required to issuing stapled visas – in essence a step forward and a compromise made by the Chinese from considering Arunachal Pradesh as unequivocally Chinese territory to acknowledging that it is disputed territory. In this case though, they appear to have simply refused to give a visa. While obvious parallels have been drawn to the Chinese refusal to grant a visa to Lt. Gen. BS Jaswal from the Indian Army’s Northern Command in 2010, the more interesting aspect is that this is a third reaction from China on visas to Arunachalis and perhaps the more acceptable to India (and in general international practice) than issuing either no visas or stapled visas.
Therefore, one must wonder if this is, contrary to the talk of bad form on the part of the Chinese, evidence instead of more happening on the Sino-Indian boundary negotiations than meets the eye.
Consider, in this context, the alacrity with which the 15th Special Representatives talks on the boundary dispute, were rescheduled so soon after they were postponed in end November last year. What is more, the talks did not seem to be in any way affected by the contretemps over the visa refusal or indeed over the Buddhist conclave that had led to their postponement.
Also part of this elaborate minuet, were the speeches on Sino-Indian relations by the two Special Representatives, the Indian NSA and the Chinese State Councillor at each other’s embassies. Shivshankar Menon highlighted the success the two neighbours have had in “managing differences and building on commonalities” over some three decades while Dai Bingguo, his Chinese counterpart, seemed at pains to emphasize that India had nothing to fear from China’s development and rise. The warmth and camaraderie on show during the talks – which resulted in a new border mechanism specifically targeted at handling incursions across the LAC – was part of a send-off to Dai who is almost certainly on his last visit to India as Chinese Special Representative on the boundary talks. It also indicates that the Indian side too, is willing to be patient and not insist unnecessarily, like many in India are wont to do, on a quick resolution of the dispute as a mark of Chinese sincerity.
Indeed, the Sino-Indian relationship is today, bigger than the boundary dispute and the resolution of the dispute does not by itself guarantee smooth sailing for the future. Far from it. Just as there are several avenues that the two sides can cooperate on such as the global economic crisis or climate change, there are many potential tripwires as well. These include ever newer issues in their bilateral commercial relationship as well as those that arise from the flux at the domestic, regional and global levels.
A case in point of the first instance, actually opened Sino-Indian relations in the new year – an Indian diplomat was manhandled in a Chinese town over a commercial dispute between Indian and Chinese traders. Meanwhile, will instability in Pakistan and Afghanistan, become a reason for New Delhi and Beijing to come together in an age of declining American willingness and capacity to shoulder the world’s burdens? Or will could these developments form the heart of a new security dilemma for the two Asian giants?
Which path India and China will choose will depend not only on the sagacity and vision of their leaders but also on their citizens engaging more responsibly and knowledgeably with each other.
Originally published: Jabin T. Jacob, “Make sure you have the new visa for China’s walls,” DNA (Mumbai), 25 January 2012.