Visa row casts shadow on India-China exchanges

The MEA now faces a sensitive decision – in an election year – on whether or not to take forward the exchange.

April 21, 2014 05:35 pm | Updated May 21, 2016 12:37 pm IST - BEIJING

China said on Monday it was still “in communication” with India about arranging the visit of a youth delegation to Beijing next month, which has been cast in doubt over the Chinese government’s continuing policy of issuing stapled visas to residents of Arunachal Pradesh.

The Indian Youth Affairs Ministry has, according to recent reports in New Delhi, conveyed its concern to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) after the Chinese Embassy reportedly asked the ministry to not include youth from Arunachal in the delegation.

The MEA now faces a sensitive decision – in an election year – on whether or not to take forward the exchange.

With India and China deciding to mark 2014 as a “year of friendly exchanges”, cancelling the entire exchange is likely to cast a cloud on diplomatic ties. Chinese President Xi Jinping is also expected to visit India later this year to take ties forward with the new government in New Delhi.

At the same time, sending a delegation without representation from Arunachal Pradesh will be seen, as the Youth Affairs Minister reportedly suggested in a letter to the MEA, as acquiescing to China’s position. However, if a student from the state is included in the delegation, the Chinese Embassy is all but certain to issue a stapled visa, in keeping with past practice.

China’s policy of issuing stapled visas to residents of Arunachal Pradesh has emerged as an annual sticking point that has recently complicated youth and sports exchanges that take place every year between the two countries.

Last year, two young archers from the state were prevented by airport authorities in New Delhi from leaving for China because they had been issued stapled visas on their passports.

In 2012, a student from Arunachal was not allowed to join a 100-member youth delegation to China after being issued a stapled visa. The delegation travelled without her to Beijing and other cities. And the previous year, a Karate team from the State was prevented from boarding a flight in New Delhi because of stapled visas.

Arunachal students and athletes have subsequently come to bear the brunt of a diplomatic stand-off between China’s insistence to issue stapled visas and India disallowing travel on the visa, seeing it as a violation of sovereignty, being denied a place at the last minute in global sports events and youth exchanges they had deservedly won participation in.

The spate of incidents last year prompted the former Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Parliament, Kiren Rijiju, to send a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh urging the government to allow travel on stapled visas. Doing so 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”, he suggested.

But Indian officials feel that on the contrary, doing so would be bolstering China’s position. China claims around 90,000 square kilometres in Arunachal Pradesh, while according to India, China is illegally occupying 38,000 square kilometres in Aksai Chin in the western sector.

China maintains that its stapled visa policy for Arunachal Pradesh – in place since around 2010 – is “consistent” with its policy for all “disputed” areas. Prior to that, however, Beijing did not issue any visas for residents of the state, arguing that it did not need to do so as the state was its territory.

India, however, views Beijing’s insistence on linking visas to boundary disputes – over which both sides are still holding talks and have held 17 rounds of negotiations – as unreasonable.

Officials have also pointed out that Beijing’s visa policies have been inconsistent: for instance, China issued stapled visas to Indians in Jammu and Kashmir but not to Pakistanis applying from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Beijing withdrew the stapled visa policy for J&K only after India suspended defence exchanges.

Asked about China’s visa policy for Arunachal residents, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang said on Monday that “China’s position on the boundary question is clear cut and consistent”.

On next month’s visit, he said both sides were “in communication about the specifics”. “I want to stress that the enhancement of youth exchanges is a consensus reached by leaders of the two countries,” he said.

“We are happy to see in recent years youth exchanges between the two countries have maintained a sound momentum and it will play an important role in promoting friendship between the two counties. We should jointly create favourable conditions for youth exchanges,” he added.

The issuing of stapled visas to the two archers in October – only weeks before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was to visit Beijing – derailed a visa liberalisation agreement set to be signed during his trip.

Last week, Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh said during a visit to Beijing that liberalising the visa regime was still “on the cards.”

She said such an agreement was “certainly required given the kind of partnership we have with China to enable people-to- people contact”.

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