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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

China's power play

September 9, 2010

Kanwal Sibal
Times of India
September 9, 2010

We must understand the implications of China's
denial of visa to General Jaswal, heading India's
Northern Command, for defence talks in Beijing on
the ground that he came from the "sensitive
location of Jammu and Kashmir" and " people from
this part of the world come with a different kind of visa".

China began giving stapled visas on the Indian
passports of Kashmir residents to make the point
that it does not recognise J&K as an integral
part of India. Now it has gone a step further by
denying a visa to the Indian army general in
charge of J&K. The implication here is that those
associated directly with Indian rule in J&K are
not politically acceptable to China for visits
even if they are travelling for purposes agreed
to at the governmental level. This would suggest
that the Chinese now consider India's presence in
J&K as lacking in legitimacy. Even the legality
of India's 'control' over J&K is being questioned.

Until now, China's territorial dispute with us
has not gone beyond its claim to Aksai Chin in
Ladakh. China has not hitherto directly contested
the territorial status of J&K bilaterally,
treating it as an India- Pakistan dispute in
which it has traditionally leaned towards
Pakistan's position openly or quietly. Its recent
steps to question India's legal status in J&K
referred to tellingly as ''this part of the
world" in bilateral dealings constitute a new and grave provocation.

While being squeamish on J&K lest it gives
cognisance to Indian sovereignty over the
territory, China deals with the Pakistan-occupied
Kashmir (PoK) area as if Pakistan's sovereignty
there is undisputed. It is involved in massive
road-building and hydel projects, disregarding
Indian objections. The Chinese have confirmed the
New York Times report on the presence of People's
Liberation Army ( PLA) personnel in PoK, but
claim flood relief as the purpose. With energy
security and the unrest in Xinjiang in view,
China has begun to look at this territory
illegally occupied by Pakistan with even greater
strategic interest than before. Uighur
separatists can be kept under a watchful eye from
there, while through Gwadar, oil and gas from the
Gulf can be transported to Xinjiang. China can
link up its interests in Afghanistan too through
this contiguous area. China would therefore want
Pakistan's hold over this region consolidated economically and legally.

While massive infrastructure projects help
achieve the former goal, questioning and
contesting India's legal status in J&K serves the
latter objective as it puts India on the
defensive and erodes its locus standi in
challenging Pakistan's illegal possession of PoK.
With its new stakes, China aims to become an
inescapable factor in any India-Pakistan final
settlement of the Kashmir issue, with the
objective, in such an eventuality, of denying
India any future role in Pakistani-held
territory. Moreover, by entrenching itself in
this region firmly, China would want to be able
to protect its strategic investment in it, should
the Pakistani state slide increasingly towards failure.

China's visa denial to General Jaswal exposes
other anomalies. It gave visas last year to the
Leh corps commander and the present army chief
then in charge of the Eastern Sector covering
Arunachal Pradesh. Can it be that J&K is a more
"sensitive location" for Beijing than Arunachal
Pradesh? Further, how does China reconcile its
questioning of India's legal authority over J&K
with prolonged border talks with India that
include the western sector? To enhance mutual
trust and confidence, India and China are
increasing military contacts, with India hoping
to soften the PLA's antagonism. The defence
dialogue for which General Jaswal was travelling
to Beijing is intended to serve this objective.
How can confidence at the military level be built
if dialogue between those on both sides in charge
of the most sensitive areas is impeded?

Our response to Chinese attacks on our
sovereignty must not be confined to temporary
suspension of defence visits, as China will
gladly pay that price for the space it is
creating for itself to pursue its strategic
interests in the original J&K state at India's
cost. We must project Chinese activity in PoK as
a security threat, in particular to our control
over Leh and Siachen. We should consider issuing
stapled visas to Tibetans travelling on Chinese
passports to underline that we had recognised a
genuinely autonomous Tibet as part of China, not
a militarised Tibet threatening our security and
serving to make additional territorial demands on
us. The prime minister's remark about Beijing
exploiting India's "soft underbelly" in Kashmir
and Pakistan to keep India in "low level
equilibrium" indicates a new, refreshing realism
about China, but a tangible response is needed.

China engages us, but has created room for itself
to openly contain us because of our appeasing
attitude. While we engage China, we too should
create space for ourselves to impose costs on it
for its hostile policies against us.

* The writer is a former foreign secretary.
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