June 05, 2016

Another Self Goal: Modi Government and China

Yohannan Chemarapally

THE Modi government it seems revels in scoring self goals while conducting diplomacy with its immediate neighbours. First it was the “red line” it had drawn with Pakistan on the issue of its diplomats holding consultations with representatives of Kashmir's Hurriyat Conference. Then the government decided that it was in the country's national interests that a de facto economic blockade be slapped on Nepal on the Madhesi issue. It has been riling the biggest neighbour China in many different ways. India has virtually signed up with the anti-China military coalition that is being forged by Washington in the Asia Pacific region. The latest indication is India's decision to sign a Logistics Support Agreement (LSA) with the United States. The Chinese government while taking note of the development had responded with discretion. But New Delhi apparently crossed a “red line” when it issued a visa for one of the leading figures of the armed Uyghur separatist movement, Isa Dolkum, to attend a conference in Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama's headquarters. FLIP FLOP OVER THE VISA ISSUE The conference was organised by the United States Commission of International Religious Freedom and the US Congress funded US Institute of Peace. Besides Uyghur dissidents, representatives of the banned Falun Gong movement and other anti-Beijing Chinese individuals were invited. The presence of Isa on Indian soil at the invitation of the government of India would have led to a major hiccup in Sino-Indian relationship. Better sense seems to have prevailed at the eleventh hour in the corridors of power in Delhi. The e-visa for Isa was canceled along with that of a couple of other Chinese dissidents, including Omar Kanat of the World Uyghur Congress, based in Washington. The Indian government however let out the information that a few other less controversial dissidents, including one Uyghur Chinese, was allowed to attend the closed door conference that was organised under the guidance and funding of the US government agencies. Interestingly, in the first week of May, the government also backtracked on the issue of Hurriyat leaders meeting with Pakistani diplomats. The new official line is that the Indian government has no issues with Hurriyat representatives meeting with the Pakistani High Commissioner or any other diplomat, as all Hurriyat members are Indian citizens. Foreign secretary level talks between the two countries were derailed for almost two years after the Modi government called off talks in 2014 on this issue. The invitation to Isa was given despite the Indian government being aware that China had designated him as a “wanted terrorist”. There was also a pending Interpol “red corner” notice against his name. The Indian home ministry told the media that it was unaware of the Interpol warrant against Isa at the time he was issued a visa. If he had landed in India, the government being a signatory to the Interpol protocols, would have been in a piquant situation. The Chinese government would have demanded his arrest and handover. The decision to give and later withdraw the visa for Isa must have been taken at the highest levels of government leaving the mandarins of South Block red faced. Think Tank diplomacy has been in forefront under the new regime in Delhi. The current national security adviser, Ajit Doval, himself headed a right wing think tank, the Vivekananda Foundation. His son, Shaurya Doval, heads an influential think tank – India First, which offers advice to the government. American think tanks like the Brooking Institute and Carnegie have set up shop in India with many former Indian policy makers on their payrolls. They were among the most vociferous in welcoming the initial decision to grant a visa to the Uyghur dissidents. The Chinese government has specifically accused Isa of aiding terrorist activity in Xinjiang, where most of the Uyghurs, a Muslim minority of Turkic origin live. The area, which borders Pakistan and Afghanistan, has been periodically wracked by violent incidents of terrorism. Uyghur terrorists, owing allegiance to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), have staged big terror attacks in major Chinese cities, including Urumqi, Kunming and Beijing. The last serious terror attack occurred last year in Xinjiang. 50 workers in a remote mine in Baicheng were hacked to death in the province. Thailand deported more than a hundred Uyghurs suspected of being part of a terror network to China last year. Soon after the deportation, Thailand suffered its worst terror incident. A prominent temple, frequented mainly by foreign tourists, was bombed. The finger of suspicion for the attack has been on Uyghur terror networks. Uyghur fighters have been prominent in the ranks of the al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. More than a thousand Uyghurs are estimated to be fighting alongside the al Qaeda and the IS. Beijing had previously lodged strong protests with Islamabad over the presence of Uyghur fighters in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Beijing had blamed Islamabad for a 2011 terror attack in the oasis city of Kashghar. China said that the plan for the attack was hatched in Uyghur training camps in Pakistan and named one Nurmemet Memmetmin as one of the masterminds behind the attack. Nurmemet had escaped from a Pakistani prison in 2006. The West has been soft on the issue of Uyghur terrorism. Washington and its allies consider Tibet and Xinjiang as issues on which China can be made vulnerable. It is therefore not a surprise that many Uyghur separatists find safe havens in western capitals. MAKING A MOUNTAIN OUT OF A MOLEHILL Isa Dolkum who is one of the prominent leaders of the World Uyghur Conference has been demanding independence for Xinjiang. Isa is currently based in Germany. New Delhi, had decided to issue a visa to the Chinese dissident in retaliation for China putting “on technical hold” India's bid to urgently get the Jaish-e-Mohammed leader, Maulana Masood Azhar's name on the UN's list of global terrorists. The Indian government decided to make a big issue out of it. India's external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj raised the Azhar issue with her Chinese counterpart, Yang Yi on the sidelines of Russia-India-China (RIC) foreign ministers meet in Moscow in April. The defense minister, Manohar Parrikkar brought up the issue during his meeting with the Chinese leadership during the course of an official visit to China in late April. The issue also came up during the recently concluded 19th round of India China border talks in which the Indian NSA, Ajit Doval participated. Many diplomatic observers are of the opinion that the Indian government unnecessarily hyped up a minor issue and made a mountain out of a molehill. The Chinese side has taken pains to explain that the decision regarding Masood Azhar was taken “in accordance with the facts” and the rules of the UN 1267 committee on counter terrorism. “We encourage all parties related to the listing of the matter of Masood Azhar to have direct communication and work out a solution through serious consultations”, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said. He said that as per the rules of the UN committee, the relevant countries should hold direct talks. But the Indian side was not satisfied with the explanation. The external affairs minister criticised “the double standards” being adopted by some countries on the global fight against terrorism. Responding to the statement of Sushma Swaraj, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said that China too “firmly opposed the double standards on the terrorism issue” and that his country was also “a victim of terrorism”. After the flip flop over the visa issue, the Indian government seems to have now decided to tread more cautiously while dealing with Beijing. The Indian president, Pranab Mukherjee, has visited China in June. The border issue remains on the back burner with not much progress being made on demarcation. India has refused to take a call on joining China's ambitious One Road, One Belt (OBOR) economic blueprint for the Asia Pacific region. India, along with Japan, are the only two major Asian countries refusing to join the grouping which has already taken off successfully.