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China’s stapled visa unstaples its stand on Arunachal

Beijing has often refused visas to Indian citizens from Arunachal,which it calls ‘South Tibet’.

Written by C. Raja Mohan | New Delhi |
January 17, 2011 4:52:11 am

China’s recent decision to give stapled visas to Indian citizens from Arunachal Pradesh has raised intriguing questions about a possible change for the better in Beijing’s approach to the territorial dispute with India in the eastern sector.

In the recent past,Beijing has often refused visas to Indian citizens from Arunachal Pradesh,which it calls ‘South Tibet’ and claims as an integral part of Chinese territory. Beijing implied that people from Arunachal were citizens of China and hence did not require visas to travel there.

Seen from that perspective,giving visas,stapled or otherwise,to applicants from Arunachal Pradesh would seem a welcome departure from the earlier Chinese position.

Observers here familiar with the history of Sino-Indian boundary dispute say the move may be noteworthy but caution against making bold conclusions about a positive change in the Chinese approach to Arunachal Pradesh.

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While some Chinese sources have been cited in the Indian media as saying that there is no change in Beijing’s visa policy on Arunachal,there are other voices indicating an important evolution.

Hu Shisheng,a leading South Asia hand at the state-run China Institute of Contemporary International Relations in Beijing,has been quoted as saying that the recent decision is a possible “concession” to India. Hu pointed out that “we have been saying that people of Arunachal Pradesh do not need any visa as it is a part of China.”

Hu,a deputy director of the Institute for South and South East Asian Studies at the CICIR,added that “there must have been a change in policy for such a thing to happen”.

Former diplomats who have negotiated with China on the boundary dispute wonder if the move is merely a tactical one aimed at improving the atmospherics of Sino-Indian relations. They point out that as an administrative decision,China’s latest move on Arunachal visas could easily be reversed.

Interestingly,India’s reaction to China’s decision to grant stapled visas was muted in comparison to the strong objections Delhi had raised at the highest political level on Beijing’s policy of granting stapled visas to Indian applicants from Jammu & Kashmir last year.

In a statement last week,the Ministry of External Affairs here reaffirmed that China must follow a “uniform practice on issuance of visas to Indian nationals — regardless of the applicant’s ethnicity or place of domicile”.

The emphasis on “uniform practice” comes against the background of frequent variations in Chinese policy on visas to Indian citizens from Arunachal Pradesh. There were previous occasions when China gave visas,denied them,and occasionally encouraged citizens from Arunachal to travel without visas.

Observers of Sino-Indian relations point to the important difference between China’s practice of issuing stapled visas to Indians from Jammu & Kashmir on the one hand and Arunachal on the other.

In the case of J&K,China’s policy of issuing stapled visas from 2008 appeared to end Beijing’s neutrality in the dispute between India and Pakistan. India vigorously protested against the Chinese approach,which seemed to recognise Pakistan’s sovereignty over Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir while questioning India’s sovereignty over J&K.

Arunachal Pradesh,in contrast,is a bilateral dispute between India and China. For India,the dispute is about the location of the boundary between Arunachal and the Tibet region of China. Beijing,on its part,claims the entire Arunachal as part of its territory and its people as Chinese citizens.

While Beijing’s decision to give stapled visas to Indian applicants from J&K is a major provocation for Delhi,its decision to grant similar visas to Indians from Arunachal could be considered in a positive light.

During his visit here last month,Chinese premier Wen Jiabao had promised to address India’s concerns over Chinese visa policy towards J&K. India is hopeful that Wen’s words will translate into action.

On Arunachal,though,a cautious India is reserving judgement on whether Beijing’s latest move is part of a new Chinese policy or just a random event.

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