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Excerpt: China's Refusal to Issue Visas After 2005 Was an Early Sign that LAC Was Going ‘Live’

In this excerpt from 'After Tiananmen: The Rise of China', Vijay Gokhale explains how China's actions post-2005, despite showing sensitivity to India’s concerns, spoke louder than words.

The following is an excerpt from the book After Tiananmen: The Rise of China by Vijay Gokhale, released by HarperCollins India in September, 2022.

In many ways, the year 2005 was to be the high point in India-China relations in the post-Cold War period.

Although the relationship continued to make progress on the surface even after 2005, it became apparent over the next few years that the consensus, outlined by the prime ministers of India and China in a joint statement in April 2005 (during the visit of Premier Wen Jiabao to India), was being adhered to by the Chinese side only when it suited them.

Positive noises on bilateral trade and business continued to come out of Beijing because their exports gained greater and greater market share in India. On a range of matters of direct concern to India, however, including the clean ‘waiver’ for the Indo-American 123 Deal in the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the question of India’s aspirations for permanent membership of the UN Security Council, the Chinese were ambivalent and worked behind the scenes to stall progress.

After Tiananmen: The Rise of China by Vijay Gokhale (HarperCollins India, September 2022)

On the Kashmir question, there was a brief period in the mid to late 1990s when China gave the appearance of adjusting its position by dropping references to the UN Security Council’s role in resolving this matter. During the Kargil war, because India presented overwhelming proof of Pakistan’s active involvement to the Chinese side, the Chinese took a more neutral stand in public. This was part of their effort to keep relations with India on an even keel.

This ended after 9/11 and thereafter, there was scant consideration for Indian sensitivities. Sino-Pakistani strategic relations continued to develop apace. Indeed, the Chinese appeared to have concluded that the improved relationship with India made it less problematic for them to continue their engagement with Pakistan.

The Chinese provided nuclear-capable M-9 and M-11 missiles and missile technology to them and assisted Pakistan in its strategic programmes. Even when their attention was drawn to specific instances of Chinese assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme, such as the supply of dual-use ring magnets by China in 1995-96, the Chinese stoutly denied it – even after the Americans had shown them the evidence.

The Defence Agreement signed in 2006 was intended to build trust between two of the world’s largest standing armies. In 2009, China refused to issue a visa to India’s Northern Army commander on the spurious argument that he exercised jurisdiction over territories that they claimed in Ladakh, which led India to question their sincerity on implementing even limited efforts at trust building. Even on the question of cooperation on shared rivers, after initially agreeing to exchange limited data for the Brahmaputra and Sutlej rivers, the expert-level mechanism stalled in its efforts to expand the effort to other common rivers, because the Chinese had changed their minds.

Also read: ‘We Are Losing More Land’: Villages Along LAC Skeptical of Latest Disengagement in Eastern Ladakh

For all China’s talk about showing sensitivity to India’s concerns, its actions post-2005 spoke louder than words. Meanwhile, India was asked to bend to Chinese sensitivities and to reiterate the ‘one China’ policy in every major joint document. It also faced mounting pressure to accommodate Chinese concerns vis-à-vis His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

The extraordinary security arrangements that China was able to obtain from India during the passage of the Olympic Torch in 2008, including the complete lockdown of central Delhi, the heart of the Union government, marked, in one sense, the perigee in the relationship, which was now being seen as one-sided and unequal even by those who wanted better relations with China.

The backsliding was also visible on the boundary question. Within months of the Agreement on Political Principles and Guiding Parameters being signed in April 2005, China chose to reinterpret key provisions, especially Article 7, that referred to the ‘safeguarding of due interests of settled populations in the border areas’.

In May 2007, Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi reportedly told external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee that the mere presence of populated areas in Arunachal Pradesh would not affect Chinese claims on the boundary. From this point on, efforts to find a framework settlement for the boundary question faltered, and over time the mechanism of special representatives was reduced to an annual consultation on foreign and security matters instead of a serious political initiative to resolve a long-standing dispute.

More ominously, the Chinese official media began to refer to Arunachal Pradesh as ‘South Tibet’ after 2005. They signalled their intention by refusing to give a visa to an Indian government official who was serving in Arunachal Pradesh in late 2006. Subsequently, they started the practice of issuing ‘stapled’ visas – the visa was not affixed to the passport but was given on a separate piece of paper stapled to the passport – to all Indian citizens from Arunachal Pradesh (as well as Jammu and Kashmir).

By the end of 2009, the Indian side was left in no doubt that the Chinese were consciously seeking to emphasise the differences on the boundary question instead of narrowing them down. It was roughly from this time onwards that the LAC began to go ‘live’ once more.

Vijay Gokhale is a former foreign secretary of India.

This excerpt was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.