Triggering a major diplomatic row, China has refused to permit an Indian army general to visit that country as he is in-charge of "sensitive" Jammu and Kashmir, prompting an angry retaliation by India which put all defence exchanges with it on hold till the matter was sorted out.
India, which has already lodged its protest with China for denying permission to Northern Commander Lt Gen B S Jaswal, said on Friday the Chinese action amounts to questioning the status of Jammu and Kashmir which is "unacceptable" as it relates to the country's sovereignty.
In a retaliatory action, New Delhi refused permission to three Chinese officers -- a senior colonel and two captains -- to visit this country in August.
Gen Jaswal, general officer-in-commanding of Udhampur- based Command, was to visit China as part of defence exchanges, sources said here today.
The visit by a General-rank officer to China was agreed upon between the two countries in January during the Annual Defence Dialogue, the sources said.
However, at that time it was not decided as to who will be sent by India, they said.
When India conveyed its decision to send Gen Jaswal, China wrote back on July 21 saying it would cause "difficulty" as the officer came from "sensitive location of Jammu and Kashmir", the sources said.
China also said "people from this part of the world come with a different kind of visa" and suggested that India may send some other officer instead of cancelling the visit.
Angry at the Chinese move, India issued to it a demarche (protest note) on August two.
It also retaliated by refusing permission to a Senior Colonel who had to deliver a "guest lecture" at National Defence College and two Captains who were to visit Panchmarhi for some course.
Sources said the denial of permission to Gen Jaswal was a "matter of concern" as it has "introduced further complexities" in the already complex relations.
New Delhi made it clear that the defence exchanges will remain "on hold" till the issue concerning China's position on Jammu and Kashmir is addressed.
"Whatever will be the consequences, the Chinese side will be solely responsible," a source said.
Amid the row, Chinese Ambassador to India Zhang Yang met Gautam Bhambawale, joint secretary (China) in the external affairs ministry, on Friday but the sources said it was not connected with the issue and the matter was not discussed.
The sources pointed out that China had been, for the last two years, refusing to stamp visas on passports of people hailing from J and K and instead issuing visas on loose sheets of paper.
India has lodged a strong protest over this action but China is not relenting.
The worrying aspect is that it has "mushroomed" now to defence exchanges, the sources said.
"We don't accept it and so have decided to put on hold all defence exchanges so that we have candid discussions with China with an aim of clarifying," they said.
"The action is tied to China's position on J and K and Kashmir. We don't accept that as it leads to infer that status of the state is yet undecided," the source said.
India sees China's policy on J and K being full of "dichotomy" as on the one hand it questions the status of the state while on the other hand it undertakes projects and developmental works in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
While defence exchanges, like visits by defence officials and training programmes, would remain suspended, Border Personnel meetings will continue as these are part of confidence-building measures for peace and tranquility on the border.
In Hyderabad, Defence Minister A K Antony ruled out snapping defence ties with China in the wake of the row, saying short-term problems would not affect overall approach towards China.
"It is not a question of breaking defence ties with China. We have close ties with China, though there could be some problems occasionally," he told reporters at a function.
Commenting on the development, External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Vishnu Prakash said the General's visit did not take place "due to certain reasons" but did not elaborate.
He, however, made it clear that China needed to be sensitive to India's concerns.
"While we value our exchanges with China, there must be sensitivity to each others concerns. Our dialogue with China on these issues is ongoing," he said.
Political parties slammed the Chinese action, saying it was an "insult" to India and asked the government to take up the issue strongly.
"I am told that the visit to China has been postponed for a while. I am not aware of why it is being delayed," Gen Jaswal said.
"China has tied the knot, it has to untie it," said a source while underlining that the neighbouring country must stop taking a position on J and K and end the practice of stapling visas to people of the state to improve relations.
"Anything that questions the status of J and K or conveys any such message would naturally not be acceptable to us as it concerns the country's sovereignty," a source said.
Sending a message to Beijing which is toeing Pakistani line on Kashmir, the sources said the matters related to the state are as sensitive to India as those related to Tibet are to China.
Though China says it wants India and Pakistan to improve their relations, in reality there is an "imbalance" in its approach as it is tilted towards Pakistan.
The sources said the matter, which is part of larger complexities involved in India-China relations, needs to be resolved through dialogue instead of precipitating it into an armed conflict.
Noting that Gen Jaswal had earlier visited China, India wonders what problem Beijing had in receiving him particularly considering that he was in-charge of Northern Command and his interaction would have helped in better management of the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh region.
The sources also observed that China had lately become more "assertive" in its approach with regard to territorial matters, particularly those involving disputes in South China and East China Sea.India is watching these activities and needs to be alert, they said, adding, however, that dialogue channels have to be kept open.