On May 1, 2019, the ISIL (Da’esh) and Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee of the UN Security Council finally added Mohammed Masood Azhar Alvi as the 422nd global terrorist to the UN sanctions List of individuals and entities pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1267/1989/2253, after China withdrew its objection to the listing proposal, which it had blocked on four previous occasions.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson justified the reversal in position as flowing from a lengthy consultative process that China had engaged in with all the concerned parties.
The spokesperson of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) hailed the sanctions committee’s decision as a step in the right direction that demonstrated the international community’s resolve to fight against terrorism and its enablers.
The reactions from Pakistan were on expected lines¾ defiant and evasive. In his 1 May 2019 statement, its Foreign Ministry spokesperson castigated the Indian media for trying to project the listing as a victory and validation of India’s position. He drew attention to Prime Minister Imran Khan’s statement that Pakistan was ready to counter terrorism in its own interests.
A number of key factors were responsible for the change in China’s position after a decade of stalemating on the question of Masood Azhar’s listing. The first is the change in the geostrategic dynamics in the Indo-Pacific region, which has exacerbated tensions between the US and China, and contributed to China’s realisation that any extreme support for Pakistan on the question of a single individual whose organisation, the Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), has already been proscribed by the United Nations (UN), would only serve to push India closer to the US in seeking to address its key security concerns. China remains extremely wary of US motives and views the nascent, as yet inchoate, concept of the Indo-Pacific, as a US-led initiative to contain China, with India being roped in as a key collaborator in that scheme.
The second factor is the US bid to escalate the matter by circulating a draft resolution directly in the UNSC to blacklist Masood Azhar and subject him to a travel ban, an assets freeze and an arms embargo, which would have compelled China to publicly provide more convincing reasons for sticking to its position on its technical hold.
Thirdly, rather than being publicly embarrassed and letting the US, France and the UK take all the credit for helping India on this crucial issue, China would have seen merit in coming forth to assuage a key Indian concern, which, alongside the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), had emerged as a major bugbear in bilateral ties in recent years. By meeting a crucial demand of India, particularly one that was underpinned by India’s determination to carry out retaliatory cross-border airstrikes on terrorist infrastructure in Pakistan, China is also preparing to avoid being caught in a cleft stick in the event of future hostilities between India and Pakistan on account of Masood Azhar’s terrorist activities in India.
Mindful of the fact that such national security issues were now part of the mainstream electoral sentiments around the country, China would have favoured an appropriate adjustment to its policy. It would hope to reap the benefits of reaching out to Indian public opinion with a modicum of reassurance shortly before the formation of a new government in India and also paving the way for more common ground during the second round of the Wuhan Informal Summit to be held in India, possibly later in the year. China would also expect that such accommodation might eventually soften India’s cut-and-dried position on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Fourthly, with the increased frequency of terror attacks in India and the neighbourhood emanating from Pakistan, and the growing influence of Pakistan-based groups on radical elements throughout the region, China has realised that the game is simply not worth the candle. This is especially so given that its isolated stand in the 1267 Sanctions Committee casts doubts on its commitment to the global war on terror and adversely impacts its credibility at a time when China is projecting its “new major power diplomacy”, championing the cause of globalisation and the liberal trade order, and propounding an alternate narrative on developmental issues such as President Xi Jinping’s “community of common destiny” through the big-ticket BRI.
Such a change in China’s stand may have been difficult when the 1267 Sanctions Committee of the UNSC last considered the matter on 13 March, simply because it came too soon after the Pulwama incident, and China would have been loath to let Pakistan down and endorse India’s claim that Pakistan was complicit in the attack and was therefore legitimately being punished for it. As an “iron brother’’, China could ill-afford such a step at the time. Moreover, China would not have wanted to give other political parties in India the impression that it was aiding the BJP’s electoral prospects by vacating its ‘hold’ on the Masood Azhar issue before the elections. As things stand, the Chinese volte face came after voting was over for the majority of seats in India.
China’s ‘holds’ on the issue in the past were often attributed to its “higher-than-the-mountains-deeper-than-the-oceans” friendship with Pakistan, while India had often expressed its surprise at China’s objections in view of the fact that “China herself has declared opposition to all forms of terrorism” and more so because, Masood Azhar’s outfit, JeM, was already under the UN sanctions list since October 2001.
In this context, it is interesting to find the Pakistani media trying to claim credit for the removal of the Chinese objections. Reports from Pakistan media suggested that Pakistan and China had “held extensive discussions” and “that the breakthrough came during the recent visit of Imran Khan to China where both sides agreed to withdraw opposition to the latest move after realising that Islamabad’s concerns were addressed”.
Islamabad’s concerns were reportedly related to resolutions being moved in the UNSC linking Masood Azhar to terrorism in Kashmir. In his 1 May 2019 remarks, the Pakistan foreign office spokesperson claimed that the current proposal was agreed to only “after all political references, including…attempts to link it with Pulwama” were removed from the resolution. Quite expectedly, Pakistan reaffirmed its continued diplomatic, political and moral support “to our Kashmiri brethren”.
It must be emphasised here that following the listing of Masood Azhar, much like that of Hafiz Saeed of Lashkar-e-Taiba in 2009, Pakistan will do nothing to bring him to justice. The all-powerful deep state of Pakistan, which has been backing Azhar and his organisation since his release from an Indian prison in 1999, will ensure that he remains safe and capable of planning and executing terror attacks against India. Reports from Pakistan make it amply clear that the listing of Masood Azhar would not mean that he would be detained. Citing un-named official sources, one newspaper even wrote that “authorities were unaware of his whereabouts”! Even under the veneer of initiating conclusive action against terror as per its ‘National Action Plan’, it is improbable that Azhar would ever be punished despite Prime Minister Imran Khan’s contrived assertion that he would not allow “any proscribed organisation or its affiliates to operate from Pakistani territory” and that he is resolved to counter “terrorism in all its forms and manifestations”.
Thus, with the first hurdle successfully negotiated, the next step for Indian diplomacy would be to sustain the pressure on Pakistan to take conclusive action against terror outfits operating from its soil against India. It must be emphasised that China condemned the Pulwama attack and openly empathised with India over the loss of its security personnel. It did not also react to the ‘pre-emptive strikes’ on Balakot, indirectly recognising India’s right to respond in a situation like this.
This, and China’s removal of its technical hold on Masood Azhar’s listing notwithstanding, two things remain clear. Firstly, China’s changed position does not in any way dilute its close ties and support for Pakistan. If anything, China’s changed position reflects the level of confidence in the close ties the two countries share, which were reiterated by President Xi Jinping in his meeting with Prime Minister Imran Khan during the BRI conference in Beijing just before Azhar’s listing. Secondly, post-Wuhan, India and China have embarked on a path of closer engagement and there is a genuine desire in both countries to take care of each other’s concerns. With China now willing to discuss issues of mutual interest with India, a well-structured bilateral dialogue on regional and global terrorism may go a long way in convincing Beijing of the need to put pressure on Islamabad to act against terror, which is in the interest of regional and global peace and amity.