While India is expected to strongly take up with China the issuing of stapled visas to two young archers from Arunachal Pradesh, officials say last week’s incident is unlikely to be the last.

Chinese officials maintain that their visa policy has remained unchanged, and will continue to be in place. In the recent past, sources add, they have not issued regular visas to Arunachal Pradesh residents, citing their territorial claims on the State. Analysts in Beijing have expressed surprise that what, according to them, was a “well known” and long-standing policy was creating a fresh dispute.

However, China’s enforcing of that policy has been far from consistent over the past few years, leading to persisting ambiguity about visa issuing procedures.

Before 2010, China’s stated policy was that it would not issue visas to Arunachal residents. Beijing’s reasoning was that since it saw the State as its territory, residents did not need visas to travel to China.

Since 2010, Beijing began issuing stapled visas, indicating it saw the State as being disputed. The move was seen by some analysts as an unexpected diluting of its earlier stand of not issuing any type of visas.

Complicating Beijing’s stated position is the fact that there have been several cases of residents from Arunachal Pradesh being issued regular visas and travelling to China over the past five years.

The ambiguity in China’s visa policy has left officials and analysts in India perplexed, leaving it unclear whether the moves were part of signalling or, on the other hand, simply the result of a disjointed Chinese bureaucratic system that is often far less efficient than perceived.

The two young archers, Maselo Mihu and Sorang Yumi, who had, last week, hoped to travel to the youth world championships in Wuxi, in the southern Chinese province of Jiangsu, are, however, unlikely to be the last Arunachal residents affected by the visa row.

Indeed, neither were they the first. Only last year, a student from Arunachal was not allowed to join a 100-member youth delegation to China after she was issued a stapled visa. The delegation, nevertheless, travelled to Beijing and other cities, and also had an audience with top Chinese leaders.

And, in 2011, a Karate team from the State was prevented from boarding a flight in New Delhi because its members had been issued stapled visas by the Chinese Embassy.

The incidents prompted the former Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Parliament, Kiren Rijiju, to send a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh earlier this year, in which he urged the Indian government to allow people from Arunachal to travel to China on stapled visas.

Doing so, he wrote, would not result in “compromising its position on sovereignty over the border region” and would “downgrade the status of Arunachal Pradesh to a less confrontational one.”

But that is not a view shared by many Indian officials, who point out that allowing citizens to travel would be tantamount to recognising China’s territorial claims and undermining India’s negotiating position on the boundary dispute.

China claims around 90,000 square kilometres in Arunachal Pradesh, in the eastern sector of the boundary, while India says China is in occupation of at least 38,000 square kilometres in Aksai Chin, in the west.

In all three cases of stapled visas being issued to Arunachal residents, India strongly raised the matter with the Chinese Foreign Ministry, but was met with the same response that China had a “consistent” visa policy for disputed territories.

Last year, both countries were able to resolve another visa row — over Jammu and Kashmir — with China quietly withdrawing stapled visas that it began issuing in 2009 to residents of J&K. China’s shift in stance followed a strong Indian reaction which included the suspension of defence exchanges.

However, considering China’s territorial claims in the east, analysts do not expect a similar withdrawal of visa policy. This week’s case, they say, is therefore unlikely to be the last.

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