By Shi Lancha
Given its unusual sensitivity, the Indian authorities’ visa policies toward Chinese personnel often reflect the latest twists and turns in the Sino-Indian relations. Two recent events tellingly demonstrated this point. In the aftermath of India’s failed bid to join Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG), which New Delhi blamed Beijing as the culprit behind the scenes of their non-admittance, the Indian authorities first refused to renew the visas of three Chinese journalists from Xinhua, then blocked a visa waiver program for BRICS nationals for “security reason.”
New Delhi countered these were routine decisions made without particular political considerations, let alone any intention to take revenge, but a strong message had been conveyed to Beijing: New Delhi is unhappy and here is the consequence. These actions were staged as less visible confrontation, but they effectively expressed displeasure much to Beijing’s discomfiture. Given this, many Indian commenters regarded these actions as crafty moves.
However, if one takes large picture into consideration, wielding visa policy as a weapon is not only petty, but may even backfire severely on India’s own long-term interests.
The scale of personnel exchange between China and India had long been disproportionate to the size of their populations. Although the Indian visa scheme for Chinese tourists has been streamlined with online application and quick authorization in 2015, major obstacle remain and the whole people-to-people exchange regime is still rather fragile.
China and India both benefited tremendously from mutual relations. With huge market potential and lower labor costs, India has been a major attraction for a huge number of Chinese businessmen. Mature business models from China are being transferred to India’s infant albeit vibrant market, Chinese real-estate tycoons are attempting to repeat their achievements in the suburbs of Indian cities, and flocks of factory owners are preparing to move production capacity to India in pursuit of lower factor costs and market margin.
These capital, personnel and technological flows from China may constitute the preconditions for India’s own economic take-off. In the international division of labor, India now boasts a range of dynamic comparative advantages. In order to better tap its potential into real economic growth, India needs to widen and further liberalize its interaction with major economic player such as China.
Although news about India’s latest reform on GST galvanized waves of optimism among business communities across China, for Chinese nationals, a business visa to India remains a pain in the butt. Unlike non-work tourism visas that can be issued promptly via the e-visa system, most other types of visa must go through the tedious process. Just like the “sensitive” journalist visa, business visas also require approval from Indian Ministry of Home Affairs on a case-by-case basis.
As a result, procrastination is simply rampant, due to the Indian authorities’ overcautious policy arrangements and huge volume of mandatory documentation.
Given these real obstacles, India’s commerce ministry has suggested a number of measures to reform the visa regime, including clustering business visa into the non-work categories, providing long-term multiple entry visas for tourism and business travel purposes and granting visa-free travel for business visitors and tourists from BRICS nations.
After several rounds of talks between the commerce, home and external affairs ministries, no inroad has been made so far, however. It seems that the visa reform has run into the security hurdles put up by the Home Ministry, which raised concerns over extending the visa reform to Chinese nationals.
While the intransigence for certain security establishment explains a part of the story, it also takes Indian decision-makers some courage to reform the time-honored visa regime, giving up visa policy as diplomatic weapon. After all, visa rules should be reflective of the political and economic realities across the border, but not short-run ups and downs in the bilateral interactions.
As the trade and investment relations draw India and China closer and closer, India should be more confident in the robustness of the Sino-Indian relations. Given this relations, India will definitely benefit tremendously from a more stable and consistent visa regime for Chinese citizens.
Although boundary disputes, NSG membership and other historical episodes are unlikely to be solved in the short run, it is in both countries’ interests to look beyond and explore the new possibilities.
The author is a visiting scholar at Tsinghua University. firstname.lastname@example.org Follow us on Twitter @GTopinion