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China-India relations

India’s visa U-turn on Chinese dissidents a sign of its lightweight diplomacy

Neeta Lal says the embarrassing flip-flop calls into question New Delhi’s China policy, and raises a number of uncomfortable questions over its apparent lack of courage

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 May, 2016, 11:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 May, 2016, 5:12pm

New Delhi’s very public U-turn on first issuing – and then rescinding – visas to three prominent Chinese dissidents has not only left it with egg on its face, but also increased bilateral mistrust while raising troublesome questions about its China policy.

German-based World Uygur Congress leader Dolkun Isa, New York-based Lu Jinghua and Hong Kong activist Ray Wong Toi-yeung were heading to a conference on democracy in Dharamsala. The region is home to Tibet’s government-in-exile and its spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who China regards as an arch-enemy. However, no sooner were the visas granted than India’s foreign ministry cancelled them, saying that Isa had an Interpol “red corner notice” against him (Beijing apparently had to remind Delhi of the notice), while the other two activists’ documents were full of “inconsistencies”.

Localist activist Edward Leung Tin-kei in talks with Dalai Lama

The episode is being viewed as a major faux pax on Delhi’s part. Some have dubbed it a classic case of tit-for-tat diplomacy gone awry. China had recently used its clout at the UN to block India’s attempt to have Masood Azhar, the alleged mastermind of an attack on an Indian air force base in January, designated an international terrorist. India’s granting of visas was apparently a response to that.

The flip-flop has also raised uncomfortable questions for the foreign ministry. Did it not realise Beijing would react unfavourably to the move? Second, why was it ignorant of Isa’s Interpol alert ? Third, if the visa decision was deliberate, and meant to be a riposte to China blocking the UN ban on Masood, does this mark a shift in India’s China policy?

China, India close to setting up military hotline, says state media

Clearly, retaliatory diplomacy can be messy. By first upping the ante, and then backtracking, Delhi has shown a lack of courage, possibly in response to some arm-twisting by Beijing. This is a personal blow for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has been keen to raise India’s strategic profile. Cancelling the visas has revealed that India’s strategic diplomacy lacks heft.

The visa incident has brought to the surface underlying tensions. India still finds itself scarred by its border skirmish with China – when the People’s Liberation Army stormed into the eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh to vanquish an ill-prepared Indian army. China, for its part, regards India’s decision to host the Dalai Lama, and its growing proximity with the US, as a provocation.

There’s hope that with Indian President Pranab Mukherjee visiting China this month, both sides might focus on the bigger picture of improved ties following President Xi Jinping’s ( 習近平 ) visit to India, and Modi’s subsequent return trip to China.

Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based senior journalist