In a recent turn of events that could be both good and bad news for India-China relations, China has issued stapled visas to two men from Arunachal Pradesh (AP). While this could be construed as an insult to India, it should also be noted that China had so far refrained from issuing visas to anyone from Arunachal Pradesh (with sporadic exceptions); the reason being that it considers the North-Eastern state to be part of China. As such, residents of the state do not need visas to travel to mainland China. The granting of visas is an indirect acceptance of Arunachal Pradesh being a part of India and should be seen as a step forward in bilateral relations.
At the same time, it is not wrong to take it as an insult to the people of Arunachal and to Indian sovereignty. Since 2009, China has also been issuing stapled visas for residents of Jammu and Kashmir on the grounds that it is a disputed territory between India and Pakistan. Stapled visas for AP could be a reaffirmation and proclamation to the world of the Chinese stand that AP is a disputed territory and China will therefore not issue the standard visas provided to other Indian citizens. If the MEA plans to go by that interpretation, it should take up the issues aggressively and register its displeasure and protest. While this would please a lot of Indians who see this as an affront and another deliberate move to demean India, it might not be the best strategy.
Given the not-so-cordial history of India-China relations for over half a century and China’s aggressive territorial intentions along its borders with India, even a passing recognition of Arunachal Pradesh as Indian state should be considered a positive policy change in China. During the recent visit to India by the Chinese premier, India had raised ‘serious objections’ to the Chinese practice of issuing stapled visas to residents of Kashmir. The failure to issue a statement indicating positive development on the issue was severely criticized by observers in India. It looks like the Indian leadership had in fact made in inroads with the issue. (At the same time, it might just be a slap in the face for Indian diplomacy.)
The north-eastern border dispute between the two countries has festered for too long and even a slight with a positive angle should be grabbed and worked to its benefit by India. While it would not be prudent for the Indian government to issue a statement displaying pleasure over the stapled visas, a deliberate silence on the issue might send the right signals to China. Indirect means of protest such as non-recognition for the visa at Indian airports should continue. India should also take up the matter during its annual border talks with China.
Looking at the bright side could however, bring sever criticism for the Indian government at home at a time when it is already facing anger due to the numerous scams/scandals that have come to the fore. At this time though, the government is better off displeasing its people than inviting a negative reaction from China in the interest of Indian foreign policy and sovereignty. It is easier to calm down one’s own people, than a traditional external adversary. At best, the MEA/PM could issue an unofficial statement expressing displeasure and hoping that China mends its ways.
The precarious and ubersensitive nature of Indo-China relations makes one want to search for positives even in apparent insults, and I would like to believe that the stapled visas are a start to the end of the Indo-China border dispute.