Hasty diplomacy

Print edition : May 27, 2016

Dolkun Isa, Uyghur separatist movement leader.

Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar with his Chinese counterpart General Chang Wanquan at the People's Liberation Army headquarters in Beijing on April 18. Photo: PTI

The Indian government crosses the diplomatic “red line” by issuing and later withdrawing visas to Chinese separatists, in line with its recent acts based on think-tank diplomacy.

THE Narendra 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 national interest that a de facto economic blockade be slapped on Nepal over the Madhesi issue. India has been riling its biggest neighbour, China, in many different ways. New Delhi has virtually signed up with the anti-China military coalition 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, 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, Dolkun Isa, to attend a conference in Dharamsala (Himachal Pradesh), the Dalai Lama’s headquarters.

The conference was organised by the U.S. Commission of International Religious Freedom and the U.S. Congress-funded U.S. Institute of Peace. Besides Uyghur dissidents, representatives of the banned Falun Gong movement and other anti-Beijing Chinese individuals were invited for the conference. 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 relations. Better sense seems to have prevailed at the eleventh hour in the corridors of power in New Delhi. The e-visas for Isa and a couple of other Chinese dissidents, including Omar Kanat of the Washington-based World Uyghur Congress, were cancelled. The Indian government, however, let out the information that a few other less controversial dissidents, including one Uyghur Chinese, were allowed to attend the closed-door conference.

Interestingly, in the first week of May, the government also backtracked on the issue of Hurriyat leaders meeting Pakistani diplomats. The new official line is that the government has no issues with Hurriyat representatives meeting the Pakistani High Commissioner or any other diplomat, as all Hurriyat members are Indian citizens. Foreign Secretary-level talks between the two countries have remained derailed for almost two years since the Modi government called off the talks in 2014 over the Hurriyat issue.

The invitation was extended to Isa although the Indian government was aware that China had designated him as a “wanted terrorist”. There was also a pending Interpol “red corner” notice against his name. The Union Ministry of Home Affairs told the media that it was unaware of the Interpol warrant against Isa when it issued a visa. Had Isa arrived for the conference, the Indian government, being a signatory to Interpol protocols, would have been in a piquant situation. China would have demanded that he be arrested and handed over to the Chinese authorities. The decision to issue a visa to Isa and later withdraw it must have been taken at the highest levels of government, leaving the mandarins of South Block red-faced. Think-tank diplomacy has been in the forefront under the new regime in New Delhi. The National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval, 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 such as the Brookings Institution and the Carnegie Foundation have set up shop in India and many former Indian policymakers are on their payrolls. These policymakers were among those who vociferously welcomed the initial decision to grant visas to the Uyghur dissidents.

Uyghur terror attacks

The Chinese government has specifically accused Isa of aiding terrorist activity in Xinjiang, where most of the Uyghurs, a Muslim minority of Turkish origin, live. The area, which borders Pakistan and Afghanistan, has been periodically wracked by terrorist attacks. 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. Fifty mine workers were hacked to death in Baicheng in Jilin province. Last year, Thailand deported to China more than a hundred Uyghurs suspected of being part of a terror network. Soon after the deportation, Thailand suffered its worst terror incident. A prominent temple, frequented mainly by foreign tourists, was bombed. Uyghur terror networks were suspected to be behind the attack.

Uyghur fighters have been prominent in the ranks of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (I.S.) in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. More than a thousand Uyghurs are estimated to be fighting alongside Al Qaeda and the I.S. Beijing had previously lodged strong protests with Islamabad over the presence of Uyghur fighters in the tribal areas of Pakistan. China blamed Pakistan for a 2011 terror attack in the oasis city of Kashgar. China said that the plan for the attack was hatched in Uyghur training camps in Pakistan and named one Nurmemet Memetmin as one of the masterminds behind the attack. He had escaped from a Pakistani prison in 2006. The West has been soft on the issue of Uyghur terrorism. The U.S. 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.

Isa, who is currently based in Germany, has been demanding independence for Xinjiang. India decided to issue a visa to the Chinese dissident in retaliation for China putting “on technical hold” India’s bid to urgently get the name of Jaish-e-Mohammed leader Maulana Masood Azhar on the United Nations’ list of global terrorists. The Indian government decided to make a big issue out of it. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj raised the Azhar issue with her Chinese counterpart, Yang Yi, on the sidelines of the Russia-India-China (RIC) Foreign Ministers meet in Moscow in April. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar 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 Ajit Doval participated. Many diplomatic observers are of the opinion that the Indian government unnecessarily hyped up a minor issue.

The Chinese side has taken pains to explain that the decision regarding Azhar was taken “in accordance with the facts” and the rules of the U.N. 1267 committee on counterterrorism. “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 as per the rules of the U.N. 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 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 decided to tread more cautiously while dealing with China. President Pranab Mukherjee is due to visit China in June when important trade and economic agreements could be initialled. The border issue is on the back burner with not much progress being made on the demarcation front. 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 and Japan are the only two major Asian countries refusing to join the grouping, which has taken off successfully.

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