The Dangers of Going Into Denial
Amb Kanwal Sibal

China’s denial of a normal visa to General Jaswal, who heads India’s Northern Command, for the fourth round of the defence dialogue in Beijing — because he came from the “sensitive location of Jammu and Kashmir” and “people from this part of the world come with a different kind of visa” — is grave political provocation and not mere “needling”, as termed by our media. This Chinese step has many implications.

China has no territorial claims on J&K other than its claim to Aksai Chin in Ladakh, where it occupies territory even beyond its own pre-1962 claim line. If it did not recognize vis-à-vis itself India’s legal authority over the remaining territory in J&K, it would not have engaged us in prolonged border parleys covering the western sector as well. Moreover, as China remains committed, at least ostensibly, to a border settlement, why has it begun to question J&K’s status as Indian territory, for that would make India ineligible as an empowered negotiating partner? Issuing stapled visas to Kashmiris holding Indian passports was the first offensive step in the direction of questioning India’s sovereignty over J&K. It has now compounded the provocation by denying a normal visa to an appointee of the government of India in J&K. By referring to J&K as “this part of the world”, Beijing is implying that the territory is not Indian and has undetermined status.

China’s denial of a visa also contradicts its stated political willingness to promote mutual trust and confidence through increased dialogue between the armed forces of the two countries. Already some modest naval and anti-terrorism joint exercises have taken place as part of an effort to build bridges with the People’s Liberation Army. The general who was denied the visa is in charge of the Aksai Chin area, where the forces of the two countries confront each other and where increasing Chinese incursions worry India. Does China want to signal now that it does not want to engage any general in charge of the sensitive Aksai Chin front even though it supports a bilateral defence dialogue intended to build greater mutual confidence?

China’s step seems even more incongruous when one considers that the present Indian army chief, General V.K. Singh, visited China in 2009 as head of the Eastern Command, which includes Arunachal Pradesh in its jurisdiction. Was China not worried that giving him a visa might be construed as accepting Arunachal Pradesh as Indian territory? Is Arunachal Pradesh less of a “ sensitive location” for China than J&K is? Moreover, the Chinese reportedly gave a visa last year to the Indian corps commander at Leh to visit China as part of an Indian defence delegation.

One cannot even argue that these are momentary aberrations in Chinese policy. The issue of stapled visas for Kashmiris has been raised officially by us with the Chinese ever since the practice was detected last year, but they have ignored our démarches. In General Jaswal’s case, the Indian side remonstrated with the Chinese officially before the issue became public, but without result. These political attacks on India’s sovereignty over J&K are therefore well-considered Chinese decisions, taken in full awareness of how they could potentially affect relations between India and China.

China’s expanded challenge to India’s territorial integrity seems to be part of its growing international assertiveness as a result of its phenomenal economic growth, its financial muscle, its developing military capacities and America’s perceived decline as a global power. It has declared the South China Sea an area of its “core interest”, prompting the United States of America to declare that it has “national interests” in this zone. China is establishing the network of an enhanced naval presence in the Indian Ocean that will challenge India’s security interests. Its hardened position on Arunachal Pradesh has become a political fact that India has to contend with, even if its provocations there have subsided now.

China has shifted its attention to J&K for several reasons. It has developed new security interests in the Pakistan-occupied territory not only in the context of the Uighur insurgency in Eastern Turkestan, but also because of the ambitious project to develop an energy lifeline for itself through Gwadar to sources of oil and gas in the Gulf area and beyond. This requires it to have an entrenched presence in PoK through involvement in large-scale infrastructure projects. The recent New York Times story about the presence of thousands of PLA units in PoK has some basis as the Chinese government admits PLA presence, though for flood-relief work. By its massive ground presence and increased stakes in this region, China intends to become a material factor in any eventual settlement between India and Pakistan regarding the state’s future. In the eventuality of Pakistan’s disintegration or inability to govern this region, China would want to prevent any Indian attempt to control it or play a political role there.

We have reacted to the latest provocation by suspending military exchanges with China for the time being. Unidentified official sources have also cautioned China that J&K to us is as sensitive a matter as Tibet is to them. The prime minister’s public candour about China exploiting our “soft underbelly” in Kashmir and Pakistan to keep India in a “low level equilibrium” is a welcome change from the normal tendency to appease China. It is important that our response to this denial of a visa does not remain confined to decisions on military exchanges.

The Chinese action transcends such exchanges; it is a direct assault on our sovereignty over J&K. If we fail to respond, we would be creating space for China to continue questioning our sovereignty over this territory and create more problems for us in tandem with its all-weather friend, Pakistan, whose case for Kashmir it now wants to bolster for evolving strategic reasons. We must, therefore, be more vocal in opposing China’s presence in PoK in public as well as in private talks with the Chinese.

We should rally international opinion against the China-Pakistan nuclear deal, which is a calculated threat to our security. Our engagement with Taiwan should go up visibly. We must seize this opportunity to prise open the question of China’s untrammelled sovereignty over Tibet. We should consider giving stapled visas to the inhabitants of the Greater Tibet region on their Chinese passports. We must begin reminding the Chinese that India has recognized an “autonomous” Tibet as part of China, not a militarily occupied zone; that China should demilitarize Tibet as a necessary bilateral confidence-building measure; that it should reach a peaceful settlement with the Dalai Lama for stable and tension-free relations between India and China.

A rising China will be an escalating problem for us. We urgently need to create political space for ourselves to impose costs on China for its adversarial policies towards us, even as we continue to engage with it.

The author is former foreign secretary of India.
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Published in The Telegraph, Published Date : September 24, 2010

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