Arunachal upset that Karate team with stapled visas was prevented from boarding a flight

The Arunachal Pradesh government on Thursday expressed anger and surprise that a karate team from the State, bound for China, was prevented from boarding a flight in New Delhi on Tuesday night after its members were issued stapled visas by the Chinese Embassy.

Its reaction underscored persisting ambiguity over China's visa policies, which have cast a shadow over bilateral relations in recent months.

Defence exchanges

Last year, India suspended defence exchanges after China refused to issue a visa to a top military official, citing its stapled visa policy for Indian citizens in Jammu and Kashmir. Defence ties were resumed last month, only after Indian officials said China had appeared to rescind the policy, issuing regular visas to both military officers and visiting civilians from the State in recent months.

In January, however, China began issuing stapled visas to residents of Arunachal Pradesh, again leaving unclear the country's visa policy towards States it disputes.

Chinese official sources said on Thursday the policy of issuing stapled visas to “all disputed regions” remained consistent and unchanged. They rejected earlier media reports claiming that the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi had agreed to issue regular visas to the Arunachal team, which had been invited to attend a Karate tournament in Quanzhou, in southern Fujian province.

As recently as 2007, China had refused entirely visa requests from residents of Arunachal Pradesh, declaring that since it had claims on the whole State — which China refers to as “Southern Tibet” — residents did not need visas to travel.

An unexpected easing

So the issuing of stapled visas, Indian officials said, in one sense marked an unexpected easing — not hardening — of Chinese claims, with an implicit acknowledgment that the State's territory was, in fact, “disputed”.

Officials are, however, unclear on how to read Beijing's latest moves; whether they are carefully calibrated signals amid ongoing negotiations over territorial claims, or simply administrative moves — with unintended ramifications — enforced by lower-level officials in a bureaucratic system that is far less coordinated than often perceived to be.

Indian officials say the ambiguity over visa policies is par for the course when it comes to Chinese diplomacy, which values opacity. China's visa policies have strained bilateral relations since the issuing of stapled visas to residents in Jammu and Kashmir was first reported in 2009.

Since then, Chinese officials have, as yet, never fully spelt out what the country's visa policy actually was, only stating in interactions with Indian officials that its policies were “consistent and unchanged.” Chinese officials have also never revealed when, and why, the stapled visa policy was put in place.

No stapled visas for PoK residents

Indian officials perceived the move as a worrying step away from China's declared position of neutrality over the Kashmir issue — China does not issue stapled visas for residents of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).

China began to reconsider the policy only after being surprised by India's decision to suspend defence exchanges last July, when the head of the Northern Command, Lieutenant-General B.S. Jaswal, was refused a visa because the “sensitive region” of Kashmir was under his charge.

Ambiguous policy

Indian officials say they are now puzzled by the move to begin issuing stapled visas in one State, after the policy appeared to be relaxed in another.

In Itanagar, Chief Minister Jarbom Gamlin said on Thursday he acknowledged “there has been an ongoing process of deliberations on the border issue with China,” the Press Trust of India reported. “But when it is an accepted fact that Arunachal Pradesh is an integral part of India,” he said, “it is inexplicable why China continues to issue stapled visas to our citizens.”

Going by recent history, officials say, any explanation remains far from likely.