Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s June 8 visit to New Delhi has brought up the stapled visa issue again, but with a new twist. The Chinese now argue that the stapled visa for the residents of Arunachal Pradesh is a “goodwill” gesture to facilitate the “outbound and overseas travel” of the people in the region. This position, though articulated officially for the first time, is not entirely new. Chinese scholars, primarily at think-tanks, have for some time posited the view that the stapled visa issue is to address the disputed border primarily with regard to the people of China. They argue that with rising nationalism and public awareness of the border dispute in Arunachal Pradesh, the government has adopted the policy of issuing stapled visas so as to convince the Chinese people that China has not made any concession to India on the border, and thereby sovereignty over Arunachal Pradesh, which they call “South Tibet.”
Indeed, the stapled visa issue raises the question of sovereignty for Arunachal Pradesh for India. Applying the same logic, the Chinese government has issued stapled visas to the residents of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). The issuance of stapled visas to Kashmiris questions not only India’s sovereignty over J&K, but also shows China’s support for Pakistan on the Kashmir issue. In effect, by using the stapled visa argument, the Chinese have not only kept up pressure on the Arunachal Pradesh border issue; they have also infringed on India’s internal matters related to Kashmir.
However, despite China’s intransigence on their shared border and Kashmir, India has leverage to pressure China on Tibet. By inviting Lobsang Sangay, the Prime Minister of the Tibetan Exiled Government in Dharamsala, to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing in ceremony, India has taken a decisive step in addressing the stapled visa issue. Quite notably, the invitation to Modi’s swearing in was not to the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, but to the democratically elected leader of the entire Tibetan community. It is worth recalling that the worldwide Tibetan community participates in the election of the Tibetan prime minister. Clearly, the recognition accorded to Sangay at Modi’s swearing in ceremony questions China’s sovereignty in Tibet.
If China questions India’s sovereignty over Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh, and claims that the stapled visa issue “has been going on for relatively a long period of time,” India is justified in shedding the appeasement policy of the earlier UPA government, and raising the question of sovereignty in Tibet, thereby establishing a quid pro quo on the border.
The roots of the India-China border dispute arguably rest in Tibet. With the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1950, the question of China’s legitimacy in Tibet loomed large. Beijing’s vulnerability on Tibet was particularly pronounced at that juncture, since it was the Republic of China in Taiwan that had international recognition and representation at the United Nations. It was precisely its desire to gain legitimacy in Tibet that drove China to reach out to India and sign the 1954 Sino-Indian Agreement on Tibetan Trade. By signing the 1954 agreement, India not only surrendered all extraterritorial rights and privileges it had inherited in Tibet from the British Indian government, but also recognized Tibet as “a region of China.” However, it should be noted that the legitimacy that China acquired in Tibet was only a bilateral arrangement with India.
It is pertinent to point out that the border problem is indeed one of history’s leftovers, precisely because both India and China were civilizational states with no notions of bounded and demarcated territories. With the departure of the colonial British power from India, and the establishment of a Communist regime after the Chinese Civil War, the two new nascent countries were confronted with the task of establishing modern states with clear boundaries. In this task of nation-building, it was natural for them to confront the problem of disputed boundaries. This problem however, took a very different course with the Chinese invasion of Tibet, which not only gave the two countries a shared border for the first time in their histories, but also brought the issue of Tibetan identity and independence to the international stage in the post-Second World War era.
Entwined in the occupation of Tibet are two broad issues that continue to concern China, but without a clear solution: the border issue with India and the Tibetan issue of independence. In fact, the India-China bonhomie achieved through the 1954 agreement was a fragile peace that soon floundered after the 1962 Sino-Indian War. The 1962 war was essentially caused not by India’s intransigence over the British-drawn borders, but China’s failure to honor the 1954 gentleman’s agreement, whereby Chinese sovereignty over Tibet rested on its reciprocity of Indian claims (albeit unstated) around the McMahon line border. More importantly, the principal result of the 1962 war was that although China defeated India, it could not settle the Tibetan issue. Clearly, Tibet is disputed territory.
Wang Yi’s emphatic position on the stapled visa issue actually comes on the heels of the invitation of Sangay to Modi’s swearing in ceremony. In fact, it clearly links the border issue with Tibet. For quite some time, China had been steadfast in keeping the two separate, but Modi’s invitation has successfully brought attention to the Tibetan issue, as the primary source of India-China tensions. It also establishes the reality that Tibet cannot be treated as an internal Chinese matter, and is essentially disputed. Hence, it is time for China to restore the true essence of the 1954 agreement by recognizing India’s sovereignty in Arunachal Pradesh, in return for China’s sovereignty in Tibet.
Abanti Bhattacharya is an Associate Professor at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi.