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China’s flip-flop on Kashmir

world Updated: Apr 15, 2011 23:35 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Hindustan Times
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Indian officials are smiling like Cheshire cats as China quietly pulls back on a Kashmiri policy that roiled relations the past two year. However, New Delhi is still uncertain as to why Beijing suddenly took this path of diplomatic thorns.

The initial view was that Beijing’s twin decisions to begin issuing stapled visas to Indian Kashmiris and then deny a visa to the head of the army’s Northern Command because his ambit included Kashmir was part of a Chinese grand strategy aimed at India.

Today, Indian officials are coming around to the view that the Kashmir shift and unshift was really evidence of incoherence within the Chinese system. “Beijing is struggling to handle the demands of an increasingly demanding world,” said one. China, superpower in the making, was more stumbling than sinister.

New Delhi, after a careful review of the information, has concluded the two Kashmiri moves arose from decisions at lower level bureaucrats designed to placate a weakening Pakistan. Little or no thought was given about the consequences. Worse, organizations like the Chinese foreign ministry who would have known better were out of the loop. Thus the Northern Command decision was taken by a low-level national ministry of defence. “May be the clerk had something against the Northern Command,” said one official.

What there is no doubt about is that China was completely taken aback at the strength of Indian response. The Chinese, say sources, may have concluded the Kashmir policy would not be a big deal given India’s track record of keeping quiet on many other issues with China.

Having made a blunder, the problem say Indian officials was that “Beijing didn’t know how to walk it back.”

Initial Indian complaints bounced off China. The real game-changer was when, at a foreign secretaries meeting in Sichuan last year, India hinted it would change its Tibet and Taiwan policies. India declined to endorse the one China policy when Premier Wen Jiabao came visiting in December last year.

Once India concluded that the stakes were smaller than expected, it began to hunt for ways to give China a face saving way to wiggle out of its diplomatic hole.

So an “administrative solution” on the stapled visa issues was allowed to slowly become a full withdrawal of the policy. Northern Command officers will be mixed in among general army officers on a trip to China.

Bejing seems to have been desperate to get out of the hole it had dug. It had been shocked by the strength of the Indian response. Especially that of the Indian media – a response that triggered an anti-tirade among China’s online community. Some Chinese believe that confrontation with India only drives the latter close to the United States and that combination gives them reason to pause.

Finally, as Chinese scholars say privately, Beijing sees its support for Pakistan as one of diminishing expectations. “What ultimately was China getting out of this visa problem?” asked an official. The answer was little or nothing.

But India will now be forever warier. At the very least the super-efficient Chinese government machinery proved dysfunctional on the most sensitive of all Indian foreign policy concerns.