Home >Opinion >Why no Indian visa for Dolkun Isa?

Dolkun Isa became a rather popular man in India, and even globally, in April, 2016. Last month saw the highest interest in Isa online since 2004—more than nine times the previous highest level, according to Google Trends. In India, the corresponding jump was 99 times.

The reason: India granted, and later withdrew, a visa to Isa, a pro-democracy Uyghur activist hailing from the China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, for attending a conference in Dharamsala. The chairman of the executive committee of the World Uyghur Congress, Isa has been labelled a terrorist by China and has an Interpol Red Corner notice against his name. Subsequently, India also denied visas to two more Chinese dissidents—Lu Jinguh and Ra Wong.

This spree of visa cancellation and denial came after much was made of giving Isa a visa as India’s befitting (read muscular) response to China’s “technical hold" against New Delhi’s attempt to get Masood Azhar—the mastermind of several terrorist attacks in India, including the recent one in Pathankot—proscribed by the UN. Naturally, the chest thumping soon subsided and New Delhi, once again, looked too puny to get its way with Beijing.

More interestingly, the preceding weeks had seen some amount of public debate, albeit belatedly, on India’s decision to move forward with the US on signing the “foundational agreements"—the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA), the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA).

An argument wielded against the signing of these agreements was how it may evoke a hostile reaction from Beijing. While the fallacies in such reasoning have been written about earlier, an additional point needs to be made in the context of the visa row.

There are two questions here. First, how will Beijing react to India entering into treaties and agreements which it “perceives" as anti-China? Second, will Beijing’s reactions be much more hostile, compared to the first scenario, in case it “perceives" external interference in what it believes are its internal affairs? The clear answer to the second question is yes, but more on that later.

The first has been touched upon by C. Raja Mohan in The Indian Express when he cited China’s having no issues with Pakistan’s continued alliance with the US. While the analogy is not perfectly accurate, as one is aware of China’s objection to quadrilateral security cooperation between India, Japan, Australia and the US, Mohan is correct in stating that China entered into an alliance with Pakistan despite the latter having already joined the US-led bloc in the Cold War.

It was during two private meetings at the historic Bandung Conference of April 1955 where Muhammad Ali Bogra, the then prime minister of Pakistan, convinced Zhou Enlai, the former Chinese premier, that Pakistan’s presence in the US-led bloc will not imply support for any move against China. To strengthen his case, Bogra cited the Korean War as an appropriate example.

The Isa visa episode has more to do with the second question. China’s sensitivity on “interference" in its “internal affairs"—be it in Tibet, Xinjiang or, to some extent, Taiwan—is extremely high and is more likely to elicit hostility than any building up of “anti-China" alliance or coalition.

In fact, it was India’s involvement—as perceived by China—in “destabilizing" Tibet that was the major factor, even greater than the boundary dispute, in creating the ground for the 1962 war. What is far less appreciated is how the boundary dispute also fed into perception of India’s designs over Tibet.

India’s insistence on Aksai Chin was particularly infuriating for Beijing as that region provided the only convenient link between China and Tibet. The occupation of Aksai Chin was important for China to exercise sovereignty over Tibet as the other two routes to Tibet—from Xining in the Qinghai province in the north and from the western part of the Sichuan basin in the east—were subject to adverse weather patterns and hostile terrain.

Moreover, the communication line in the east from Sichuan was prone to attacks from the Kham tribes in the eastern Tibet who were being supported by the US’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). India, China believed, was part of this support structure along with the US. And hence, the logic went, India was supposed to be seeking Chinese evacuation of Aksai Chin so that Chinese control of Tibet can be averted.

Not only is China particularly sensitive to such “interferences", but it also ensures that its adversaries are aware of the red lines. Hence, Beijing exaggerates its sensitivities in ample measure.

For instance, following India’s intervention in East Pakistan in 1971, Qiao Guanghua, the Chinese ambassador to the UN, said in his address to the Security Council on 7 December 1971: “The Indian ruling circle had some time ago forcibly coerced several tens of thousands of the inhabitants of China’s Tibet into going to India and set up a so-called government-in-exile headed by the Chinese traitor Dalai Lama. To agree that the Indian government is justified to use the so-called refugee question as a pretext for invading Pakistan is tantamount to agreeing that the Indian government will be justified to use the question of the so-called ‘Tibetan refugees’ as a pretext for invading China."

This reference to imagined invasion of China was entirely ridiculous and unwarranted. However, its mention in a speech to the UN Security Council exemplifies how deeply China detests any “interference" in its internal affairs. The cancellation of visa to Isa and subsequent denial to Lu and Ra is, therefore, not at all surprising. The mandarins in Beijing would have reminded the South Block of their red lines in no uncertain terms.

India cannot afford to meddle with China, especially when the disparities in the capabilities of the two nations are so wide. A defence partnership with the US—where the foundational agreements will help—is going to be useful in bridging this capabilities gap. And if what I am hearing is right, the LSA—which the Indian defence minister Manohar Parrikar and US defence secretary Ashton Carter had agreed to in their recent meeting in New Delhi—has been killed, at least for now.

The Indian policymakers have their priorities, as one can see, entirely messed up. The foundational agreements are not just more important for building India’s capabilities, but also far less likely to evoke China’s hostilities than the showmanship of granting a visa to Isa, which anyway amounted to little, with New Delhi having to back out of the game at the sign of first flutter from the Chinese.

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