India’s liberalised visa agreement with China,which was to be signed during Prime Minister Manmohan Singhs visit to Beijing next week,has been struck off by New Delhi at the last minute as a mark of protest against China issuing stapled visas to two Indian archers from Arunachal Pradesh.
The decision to pull back on the agreement,sources said,was taken at the highest levels with the PMO taking a call that India could not be seen liberalising visa rules when China was going ahead and underlining what it claims as the disputed status of Arunachal Pradesh weeks before the PMs visit.
India also lodged a strong diplomatic protest with China over this issue even as preparations were being made for the trip.
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The visa agreement was all set for approval at Thursdays Cabinet meeting and was even part of the agenda documents circulated to ministers. However,at the meeting,National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon is learnt to have informed the Cabinet that the agreement had been deferred and would not be signed during the visit.
Indian officials have for a while been concerned that China tends to highlight territorial disputes in unpredictable ways just before high-level visits.
The first time this was noticed was in 2006 when the then Chinese ambassador went public claiming Arunachal Pradesh to be a part of China just before then President Hu Jintaos visit to New Delhi.
Earlier this year,the Depsang stand-off surfaced just a month ahead of new Chinese Premier Li Keqiangs first visit to India.
In the latest instance,Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh made it a point to assert Indias stand in her pre-visit briefing Friday. Arunachal Pradesh is an integral and inalienable part of India, she reaffirmed while responding to queries on the stapled visas issue.
At a broader level,stapled visas for Arunachal have been the subject of a detailed policy debate within South Block. Unlike in the case of Kashmir,where China used to issue regular visas and then suddenly started stapling visas before making amends recently,the Chinese position on Arunachal Pradesh had always been more consistent. Chinese authorities never issued visas to Arunachal residents because of its claim that the state is a part of China.
Issuing stapled visas,in a way,was seen as forward movement because Beijing had at least recognised the need to issue visas to the residents and domiciles of the state. However,the other side of the argument,which eventually was the position New Delhi took,has been that India cannot even consider meeting China halfway on this as it would amount to endorsing the Chinese line of the state being disputed territory.
This was the very principle on which the two countries had a long-drawn confrontation at the Asian Development Bank where China put a hold on financing two projects in Arunachal Pradesh.
The matter was settled in a circuitous way under the Banks policy for disputed areas and the funding was approved,but that was the last time India sent a project from the state for financing by international institutions. It was decided that the government will domestically fund all projects in the state.
In this imbroglio,however,the liberal visa agreement suffered a setback. It was not just Chinese business,but even Indian IT firms that had been rooting for liberalising the existing regime that only permits a maximum six-month business visa with no single stay exceeding 90 days.
The new agreement intended to increase the visa term to one year with a maximum single-stay duration of six months.
Also,the home ministry was to commit to a 30-day deadline for screening employment and project visa applications – a process that can take up to six months now.
The other important improvement was doing away with individual screening of every delegate attending a conference or a seminar in India. While the event itself would be assessed from the political and security angle,there would be no delegate-specific screening once the event is cleared for granting conference visas.
It seems there is a rush among Chinese academics and policy experts to attend conferences here with the Indian embassy in Beijing issuing over 800 conference visas,despite all the restrictions,last year.