Tuesday, October 20, 2009

China Opens a New Front in Kashmir

BANGALORE - India and China appear to have opened a new front - Kashmir - in their ongoing war of words. While India has warned China against involvement in projects in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, Beijing seems to be adopting a new, provocative line on Kashmir with regard to India.

For years, China kept up a careful balancing act between India and Pakistan on the divided Kashmir issue, even endorsing - on occasion - India's position. It is now depicting the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir as a sovereign entity.

According to a Kathmandu datelined Indo-Asian News Service report, media kits providing "basic information" to journalists visiting Tibet depict Kashmir as a country separate from India. Tibet "borders with India, Nepal, Myanmar and the Kashmir area", the handouts say.

This comes close on the heels of a controversy over the Chinese Embassy in Delhi issuing separate visas to Indian passport holders from Indian-administered Kashmir. Instead of stamping the passport with a visa, as is the norm with Indian citizens, Kashmiri students and businessmen traveling to China have had their visas stamped on a separate paper stapled to the passport.

This has raised hackles in Delhi.

After all, issuing visas on a separate paper is not done without a reason. It is sometimes done to prevent detection of a person's travel to the country. Israel for instance does not stamp visas in a passport in order to protect visitors from being denied entry to other countries that regard a visit to Israel as a disqualification for a visa. It is done too when a country wants to avoid extending official recognition to another country's control over territory it believes is disputed.

Hitherto, it was only passports of travelers from Arunachal Pradesh, a state in the Indian northeast over which China lays claim and briefly occupied in a 1962 war,that the Chinese avoided stamping with their official seal. Indian passport holders from Arunachal visiting China were issued visas on paper stapled to the passport. Now that has been extended to those from Kashmir.

By issuing Kashmiris a visa different from that of other Indians, is China now questioning Kashmir's status as an integral part of India? By not affixing its official seal on the passports of Kashmiri Indians, is China avoiding endorsing the Indian citizenship of Kashmiris?

Sino-Indian relations have deteriorated considerably in recent months. China has been mounting pressure on Delhi over Arunachal Pradesh. Reports in the Indian media have drawn attention to growing Chinese incursions into Indian territory, particularly into Arunachal. In recent months, Beijing has been protesting India's sovereignty over the state in various ways. It sought to block India's application for a loan from the Asian Development Bank that included funding for developmental projects in Arunachal Pradesh. And it has protested the proposed visit of exiled Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, to the state in November. More recently, when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited the state to campaign for his party in state assembly elections there, the Chinese Foreign Ministry protested with a statement that said it was "strongly dissatisfied".

Indian officials point out that China is "opening the Kashmir front just to pressure India on the border question". The entire Sino-Indian frontier is disputed and the two are seeking to negotiate a settlement. Talks over almost three decades have yielded agreement on guiding principles and parameters for the talks.

China's position on Kashmir has undergone many twists and turns. From 1964 to 1979 (when its relations with India were largely icy following the border war), China supported the right of the Kashmiri people to self-determination. As relations with India improved in the 1980s, it moved away from this line and said that the Kashmir issue was a bilateral one between India and Pakistan that should be solved peacefully. In an attempt to straddle the Indian and Pakistani positions, it called for settlement of the problem in the spirit of the 1972 Simla Agreement and in accordance with United Nations resolutions.

In the 1990s, as Sino-Indian rapprochement grew, China moved away from endorsing the Pakistani position on Kashmir. It was opposed to Islamabad's attempts at internationalizing the issue. And in December 1996, during his visit to the subcontinent, president Jiang Zemin explicitly expressed support for the Indian approach of addressing India-Pakistan disputes through "consultations and negotiations".

This was taken further during the Kargil conflict between India and Pakistan in 1999 when China called on Pakistan to withdraw its troops from the Indian side of the Line of Control (LoC) that divides the two Kashmirs. In doing so, it was endorsing the LoC as the de facto border between India and Pakistan.

That position on Kashmir is now changing.

Some analysts have dismissed China's recent moves on Kashmir as a "pressure tactic, nothing more". "China cannot afford endorsing independence for Kashmir when it has to contend with its own restive, independence-seeking Muslim population in Xinjiang. What is becoming apparent in the ongoing war of words is that India, after years of buckling to Chinese pressure, seems to be standing up to it, delivering punch for punch.

Close on the heels of Beijing's objections to the Indian prime minister's visit to Arunachal, India struck back. The vice chief of the Indian Air Force, P K Barbora, quietly raised the T-word - Tibet. "We have never said anything about China opening air bases in Tibet ... and they are definitely expanding their airfields. I don't think they should say anything about our ALGs [advanced landing grounds] on our side," he said.

The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) also hit back. It objected to Chinese involvement in projects in Pakistan-administered Kashmir and warned that this would impact Sino-Indian ties in the long run. In August, during Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari's visit to China, China and Pakistan signed a memorandum of understanding on building a 7,000-megawatt hydropower project in Bunji in Pakistani Kashmir. The two countries are also working to upgrade the strategic Karakoram Highway, which runs from Kashgar in China's Xinjiang province through Gilgit and Bunji in Pakistani Kashmir up to Havelin near Abbotabad in Pakistan.

Soon after, the MEA lodged a protest over the hydro project at Bunji with Pakistan's deputy high commissioner, Riffat Masood, in New Delhi. Its high commission in Islamabad, too, lodged a formal protest with Pakistan's Foreign Office. At that time, however, India did not raise the matter with the Chinese.

In the month since, with relations with China deteriorating considerably, Delhi decided to punch back. "We hope that the Chinese side will take a long-term view of India-China relations, and cease such activities in areas illegally occupied by Pakistan," the MEA said in a statement last week. These are strong words for a government that has generally been accused of being timid in dealing with China. But will the shedding of diffidence last? The newfound toughness in its words at least will be put to the test soon.

The Dalai Lama's week-long visit to Arunachal is due to begin on November 8, when he will land in Tawang, the main bone of contention between India and China. Chinese pressure on India is bound to mount in the coming weeks. Whether India will resist the pressure or succumb to it, as it has in the past, will be keenly watched. By Sudha Ramachandran independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.

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