Close on the heels of reported border incursions, China's recent practice of issuing separate visas to Indian passport holders from Jammu and Kashmir has sparked widespread concern and brought to the fore a growing trust deficit between the two neighbours.
External Affairs Ministry conveyed its unhappiness to the Chinese government on Thursday, a day after a media report disclosed the practice that is seen to give separate status to Jammu and Kashmir, claimed by Pakistan, widely considered Beijing's all-weather ally.
"It is our considered view and position that there should be no discrimination against visa applicants of Indian nationality on grounds of domicile or ethnicity," External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Vishnu Prakash said here. "We have conveyed our well-justified concern to the Chinese government in this regard," he said.
The issue was taken up on Thursday with both the Chinese embassy and with the foreign office in Beijing.
"The visas are valid," was all a spokesperson of the Chinese embassy would say when asked about the practice of issuing standalone visas to Kashmiris.
External Affairs Minister S M Krishna is likely to raise the issue with his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi's visit to India on October 26-27, top sources told IANS. Yang will be in New Delhi to participate in the trilateral meeting of the foreign ministers of India, China and Russia which will be held in Bangalore.
The Chinese embassy has been issuing visas for some time to passport holders from Jammu and Kashmir on a separate sheet of paper rather than stamping them in their passports, which is the norm with other Indian citizens. They have given stapled visas earlier to residents of Arunachal Pradesh, over which China claims its sovereignty.
The move is fraught with security risks as the unattached visa does not leave any trail behind and does not fully reflect the travel record of the passport holder.
According to sources, the new practice has coincided with a hardening of Chinese posture on Arunachal Pradesh. "It's meant to put India on the defensive on the boundary issue," said the sources.
"It's extremely troubling and disturbing. It does suggest a new level of tension between India and China. There has to be a political message in what has happened," Mira Sinha Bhattachrjea, a China expert at the Institute of Chinese Studies in New Delhi, told IANS.
"Except for a brief period during the India-Pakistan war in 1965, the Chinese have not raised the Kashmir issue," she pointed out.
"If the Chinese are beginning to highlight the disputed status of Jammu and Kashmir, it's a matter of great concern and anxiety," said Bhattachrjea. "Trust deficit is growing."
"These are pinpricks. This could be used as a bargaining chip in boundary negotiations or on other issues like India's claim for a seat in the UN Security Council," Srikanth Kondapalli, a China expert at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, told IANS.
The visa issue has revived trust deficit, an impression that has been bolstered by reports of recent incursions and a string of hostile posturing by China against India's interests that started with Beijing's alleged negative role in trying to block consensus in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) a year ago.
Recently, China tried to block a development loan for India in the Asian Development Bank (ADB) on grounds that a part of the loan was meant for irrigation projects in Arunachal Pradesh.