Prime Minister Manmohan Singh being received by ambassador S Jaishankar at Beijing airport on Tuesday. (PTI)
Beijing, Oct. 22: In a typical “two steps forward, one step back” pirouette that characterises the current relationship between Asia’s two giants, India is set to sign a significant Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) among other deals with China tomorrow but will not ink the visa liberalisation pact that the host country was particularly keen on.
India’s decision to postpone the visa agreement is a retaliatory move against China issuing stapled visas to two Indian archers from Arunachal Pradesh earlier this month, well-placed government sources indicated here today.
After wrapping up a relatively relaxed and stress-free bilateral summit with old friend Russia in Moscow yesterday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh landed in Beijing this evening to pursue a much more challenging assignment.
The evolving relationship with China is ranked among the “most important” but also the “most complex” for India, sources said. While there has been a great convergence of views on many international issues as well as much progress in bilateral ties in the last few years, the old suspicions and hostility between the two neighbours who share a long and disputed border continue to haunt ties.
But unlike hawkish sections of the media and civil society who still regard China as India’s enemy number two (if not one), the Indian establishment appears convinced that enhanced economic and strategic ties with China are an imperative, especially in a rapidly changing global scenario where “the centre of gravity” is shifting from the West to the Asia-Pacific region.
Given this desire, India is miffed that China should have “needled” India on the Arunachal issue just ahead of Singh’s visit to Beijing.
India was all set to give in to longstanding Chinese requests for a more liberal visa regime, including extending the validity of business visas, removing restrictions on re-applications for tourist visas, imposing a one-month timeframe for home ministry clearance for applications, et al.
Contrary to India’s image of being an open, liberal, pluralist democracy, it has a fairly restrictive visa regime — and more so for certain nationals than others.
In view of the steep rise in trade between India and China in recent years, many more Chinese businessmen seek to come to India as do more and more tourists. The visa restrictions have proved irksome.
The Indian government had finalised a draft for the liberalised visa rules, which was slated for clearance at a cabinet meeting last week. But then China once again issued stapled visas to Indians from Arunachal to underline that it regards it as a “disputed” territory.
The timing of the decision was such that India was forced to call off the visa deal at the last minute.
Senior foreign office mandarins indicated that India had only “postponed” the visa deal to show its displeasure at China’s “silly move”. India will ink the deal sooner or later but wants China “to sweat a bit”, they said.
Barring the visa quibble, the Prime Minister’s visit — coming less than six months after Chinese Premier Li Keqiang made India his first destination after assuming his post — has a whole range of substantive issues on the table.
Of these, the BDCA is of prime importance, aimed as it is to contain the periodic tensions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) as a result of Chinese incursions into what India claims is its territory and vice versa.
In 1993, India and China had signed an agreement to maintain “peace and tranquillity” along the LAC till such time the two sides finally sorted out the boundary question through regular and detailed talks.
Since then, both sides have periodically worked out “confidence-building measures” (CBMs) to maintain status quo on the border. Although “incursions” by Chinese troops have taken place from time to time (most recently in Depsang in eastern Ladakh in April this year), the LAC remains “our most peaceful border” with not a single shot fired there in over three decades, sources pointed out.
The Depsang misadventure, however, has made both sides realise that more CBMs are necessary between the two armies lined up on either side of the LAC. These will constitute the BDCA, the details of which will be revealed tomorrow.
Ever since Rajiv Gandhi’s historic handshake with Deng Xiaoping in Beijing back in 1988, the two countries have taken “incremental” steps to put a difficult relationship on an even keel. But the pace of cooperation picked up in the last decade with China becoming India’s largest trade partner, and India and China working closely together in multilateral forums such as Brics, G20, etc.
But India-China ties are not easy or simple — cooperation and competition, suspicion and trust, rivalry and partnership co-exist.
That is why even as the two countries are slated to take forward their “strategic economic dialogue” and “strategic convergence” on global issues, Singh will also tell the Chinese leadership of India’s concerns — be they over stapled visas or over China supplying nuclear reactors to Pakistan or building infrastructure in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, sources said.