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Will journalists' expulsion affect Modi's China visit?

July 27, 2016 14:49 IST

Chinese President Xi Jinping with Narendra Modi

The expulsion is likely to cloud India-China ties as Narendra Modi visits China for the G-20 Summit on September 4-5 and Xi Jinping is to be in Goa for the BRICS meeting on October 15-16.
Can diplomacy resolve this unpleasant event, asks Rajaram Panda.

India-China relations, already strained by a number of issues clouded by accusations and counter-accusations by either side, face another testing time as three Chinese journalists based in India have been asked to leave as their visas would not be extended.

The border issue remains unresolved. China claims parts of Arunachal Pradesh as its own; it objects to the Dalai Lama's visit to that state; issues stapled visas to Indians from Arunachal Pradesh; denies visa to a general who was to visit China on an official trip.

At the international level, China opposes India's aspiration to be a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. It blocked India's entry to the Nuclear Suppliers Group in June.

At the NSG meeting in Seoul, China singled out India, a non-Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty signatory, and created 'procedural' hurdles to successfully block its membership.

China has labelled India as the cornerstone for the international non-proliferation regime and equates India with Pakistan. China should not be surprised if it received in the same coin if India saw an opportunity. It is against this background that India's denial of visas to the three Chinese journalists should be understood.

The decision to expel the three senior Chinese journalists is not impulsive; it was a decision taken after inputs from the intelligence agencies which expressed 'concern' about their activities while in India.

Wu Qiang, Xinhua's bureau chief in Delhi and two of his Mumbai-based colleagues Lu Tang and She Yonggang have been asked to leave India by July 31. This is probably the first time India has asked Chinese journalists to leave the country in this manner.

The three scribes were suspecting of impersonating other people and visiting restricted facilities under assumed names and therefore working beyond their journalistic brief. The two Mumbai-based journalists were accused of visiting a Tibetan settlement in Karnataka using false names. While Wu has been living in India on an extended visa for the past six years, his two colleagues have received visa extensions.

Lu and She, who came to India in January 2015, visited the Tibetan settlement and did not reveal their true identity. Established in 1960s, five settlements house around 40,000 Tibetans in Karnataka. Two of these settlements are in Bylakuppe and one each in Mundgod, Hunsur and Kollegal.

Under Indian law, no foreigner or foreign aid agency can visit these or any Tibetan settlement in India without a protected area permit, issued by the Union home ministry.

The Chinese scribes did not secure a protected area permit and their identities were detected after they arrived there, a clear violation of Indian law and a case of exceeding their journalistic brief. The journalists also reportedly visited Nepal several times in 2015, when China-supported anti-India sentiment was at a high.

The expulsion decision and rejection of their work visas could worsen the already strained relations between the two countries. The decision to expel the trio does not mean that Xinhua journalists are not welcome in India; the agency can replace them with others.

In recent times, there is an increasing bonhomie between New Delhi and Washington, DC. This discomforts Beijing. Beijing also feels that the West is inciting India to act tough with China.

India is also not shy to articulate its stance on the South China Sea dispute, though it is not a party, but has stakes on its resources.

India has said that the recent ruling by the arbitration court at The Hague is binding and therefore should be accepted, a clear sign of disapproving the Chinese stance on the South China Sea.

It is not uncommon that governments have expelled foreign journalists if their writing are seen as critical of official policy. Last December, China expelled a French journalist because he questioned the way the Chinese government handled the situation in the restive Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and described the reporting as fabricated. Like what India did this time, China too did not renew his visa.

The Chinese journalists' visas expired a few months ago and they had applied for renewal. Though they were asked to wait, their passports were returned without the visa, thereby restricting their movement outside the cities of residence.

Finally they were told on July 14 that their visas would not be renewed and they would have to leave the country.

There is a strong possibility now for China to carry out tit-for-tat expulsions of Indian journalists based in Chinese cities.

Five Indian journalists are posted in China, besides a number of Indians who work for China's English State media like China Central Television, the China Daily and China Radio International.

China also welcomed two Delhi-based Indian scribes on fellowships offered by the Chinese government. Their presence in China might now come under scrutiny as a means of reprisals. Even the fellowships might be withdrawn.

For now, the Chinese embassy has taken up the matter with the ministry of external affairs, which is unlikely to overlook intelligence inputs.

As it appears, serious consequences await India as Beijing is likely to see India's actions as an answer to its opposition to India's membership of the NSG. The nationalist tabloid Global Times, linked to the Communist Party of China mouthpiece People's Daily and the first to react to the expulsion, took umbrage and observed that China would make it difficult for Indian scribes to get a Chinese visa.

In an editorial, the newspaper observed: 'India's expulsion of reporters is a petty act.' The editorial, however, pitched for maintaining friendly ties between the two countries.

While appreciating the booming trade between the two countries, the editorial also praised both parties for maintaining neutrality on some international issues. The Chinese government did not react immediately and has maintained a silence.

The expulsion is likely to cloud India-China ties as Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits China for the G-20 Leaders Summit in the eastern city of Hangzhou on September 4-5 and President Xi Jinping is scheduled to be in Goa for the BRICS meeting on October 15-16.

The Chinese embassy is reportedly to have lobbied hard to get the decision reversed, but the Government of India is firm in its decision that the scribes are not welcome any more and must return.

Can diplomacy resolve this unpleasant happening?

Dr Rajaram Panda is currently Indian Council for Cultural Relations chair visiting professor at Reitaku University, Japan.

Dr Rajaram Panda