On Wednesday, a committee of the United Nations Security Council added Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar to its ISIL (Da’esh) and Al-Qaida Sanctions List of Individuals and Entities after China lifted its technical hold on listing the Pakistan-based terrorist. Beijing’s turnaround after 10 years of blocking the move has implications for both the South Asian region and the world. Multilateral negotiations frequently involve complex quid pro quos, and China is known to wait and play the long game — why has it chosen to relent at this moment?
While the border dispute has been the most protracted challenge, Beijing’s lack of support to New Delhi’s bid for permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council has been a longstanding sore point. China has also opposed India’s entry into the elite Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) since 2016.
China signed off on the NSG waiver granted to India in September 2008 after the George W Bush administration did some heavylifting. But it refused to budge when India sought membership of the NSG, which would enable it to access high-end, critical and dual-use technology.
In June 2016, Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar went to Seoul and presented India’s case to members, including China, attending the NSG plenary. Before that, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had met President Xi Jinping at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Tashkent and asked him to “make a fair and objective assessment of India’s application and judge it on its own merit”. But Xi did not yield.
Thwarted listing efforts
India first attempted to have Azhar listed by the UNSC Resolution 1267 Sanctions Committee in 2009, after the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attacks, but China put a technical hold on the proposal. India made a much more serious attempt after the January 2016 Pathankot terrorist attack. Diplomatic efforts were made through that year, and Modi raised the issue with Xi on the sidelines of the BRICS Summit in Goa in October 2016 — to be rebuffed.
Fresh efforts to list Azhar were made in 2017 — this time, in a break from the past, the proposal was moved by the US, the UK, and France. It was signal that New Delhi was acting as part of a global effort, not pushing an India-Pakistan bilateral issue onto a multilateral forum.
The June-August 2017 Doklam standoff raised tensions, but when the two leaders met in Xiamen in September, they decided to work towards ensuring that “differences do not become disputes”. This formulation, which began during the leaders’ meeting in Astana in June 2017, led to their informal summit in Wuhan in April 2018, where the two sides agreed to be sensitive to each other’s concerns.
After the February 14 Pulwama terrorist attack, as India pressed to have Azhar listed, it invoked the Wuhan spirit. But on March 13, barely an hour before the deadline ran out, China blocked again — for the fourth time in 10 years.
The situation now
With its action on Wednesday, China has taken a major contentious issue off the table, and given itself space for positive manoeuvring with India. It has eased the atmosphere before the next informal summit, which is likely to take place in India later this year, and created goodwill for the two sides to work on their differences, and build on their convergences. While several issues still remain, India and China have a chance to use the political capital from the Azhar listing to work together on projects, and to collaborate and cooperate in multiple areas of convergence.
It is not that China has not taken care of Pakistan’s sensitivities. Prime Minister Imran Khan was in Beijing for the Belt and Road Forum Summit on April 25, and over the past two months, the close allies have deliberated on the pros and cons of the decision.
China has huge geostrategic and economic stakes in Pakistan, and is heavily invested in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), part of Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative. It worries about terrorist threats to its workers and assets in Pakistan, and wants that country’s strategic establishment to keep the terrorists on a leash. Pakistan does not have the luxury of being annoyed with China’s decision to allow Azhar’s listing.
At the same time, Pakistan’s strategic and political establishment has now got some space to ward off immediate international pressure for not acting against terrorism and terrorist financing. Azhar’s listing gives Pakistan a window to claim that it has “zero tolerance” for terrorism before the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which is meeting to assess its actions against terrorism and terrorist financing.
As China takes over the FATF presidency from the US on July 1, Pakistan will be on a stronger footing — and may have a reasonably good chance of avoiding blacklisting. The US, the UK, France, and India, along with other countries, will, however, take a hard look at Pakistan’s record since last year when it made certain commitments to the FATF.
China and Pakistan proclaim they are “all-weather friends” and “iron brothers”, and attempts will likely be made to leverage the Azhar decision to procure better international credit terms for Imran’s cash-trapped government.
View from Islamabad…
It would also appear that for Pakistan, Azhar — who some reports suggest is now bedridden with spinal ailments — has outlived his utility. While Jaish remains a strategic asset for Pakistan’s security establishment, defending Azhar was probably proving too costly for Pakistan, which, under Imran and Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, is trying very hard to improve its badly-tarnished global image. China’s cooperation with the global community could present it with a breather; however, a country that has sheltered Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar, and Hafiz Saeed — the last of whom roams around freely spewing venom against India and even putting up candidates in elections — has a long way to go before anyone believes it.
…And from Beijing
A key Chinese concern was to minimize its perceived reputational costs before the international community. For a country aspiring for global leadership, it is bad optics to be seen as protecting, in defiance of a global consensus, a single individual who is responsible for so many terrorist actions. Beijing, which is frequently assailed for violating global rules, would like to project an image of responsibility and leadership. The Azhar listing could be indication that it has finally decided that the time has come to play a new move.