China's blocking of Masood Azhar's listing at UN as terrorist is not a setback, but a diplomatic victory for India

The Opposition’s attack on the Narendra Modi government and the outrage against China on mainstream and social media for its role in blocking, yet again, a UN move to designate Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar as a terrorist distracts from the real issue — China’s outlier position in backing a globally infamous terrorist and incurring of reputational costs in being repeatedly forced to do so is a diplomatic victory for India. The benefits of this diplomatic victory will unfold over time.

Equally, China’s extension of “technical hold” against UNSC listing of the JeM chief is a reality check and a lesson for Indian policymakers who were led down the garden path by Beijing into believing that ‘Wuhan spirit’ will redefine the Sino-Indian ties.

There was never a doubt about the outcome, even though India has officially called it “disappointing”. Despite India’s diplomatic offensive post Pulwama attacks, chances of China revising the stance it has taken at the UN on JeM chief in 2009, 2011, 2016 and again in 2017 were remote. Though the motion was moved by France and backed by the US and UK, China had hinted all along that it has not budged from its position.

On 11 March, during a press briefing in Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang told the media that “China’s position on the designation of a terrorist by the 1267 Sanctions Committee is consistent and clear. China adopted a responsible attitude, follows the rules of the procedure of the committee and participated in the discussions in a responsible manner. Only through discussions can we come up with a responsible solution.”

Chinas blocking of Masood Azhars listing at UN as terrorist is not a setback, but a diplomatic victory for India

File image of Masood Azhar. AFP

Again, on 13 March, hours before the resolution to designate Azhar as a “global terrorist” was taken up by the 1267 Al Qaeda Sanctions Committee of the UN Security Council, China reiterated that it will “continue to adopt responsible attitude and participate in the deliberations in the UNSC 1267 Committee”. Its foreign ministry claimed that “China always adopts a responsible attitude, engage in consultations with various parties and properly deal with this issue…. and only the solution that is acceptable to all sides is conducive for resolving the issue.”

China frequently uses obfuscation and ambiguity as rhetorical tools to mask clear objectives. In this case, Beijing had no intention in refraining from placing a “technical hold” to rescue Azhar because its cost-benefit calculus regarding India and Pakistan has not undergone any change. As long as Beijing perceives the benefits of a close strategic, economic and military tie with Pakistan outweighing the benefits of improving its relationship with a strategic rival in the continental landmass, there will be no change in China’s behaviour. India may modify China’s actions at the UN on Azhar or progress on other contentious issues only if it possesses a leverage to upset the China-Pakistan cost-benefit calculus.

Right now, the calculus is loaded so heavily against India that China does not flinch from openly displaying its hypocrisy on terrorism. It has detained more than 1.5 million Muslims in concentration camps from the troubled Xinjiang region to indoctrinate them and holds them without any charge or evidence. But it has been calling for “more evidence” and “more time” to “study the matter” and conduct an “in-depth probe” to designate as terrorist an individual who heads a UN-designated terrorist organisation. Though it may sound hypocritical, the move is consistent with China’s diplomatic manoeuvers that operate on the principles of realism and transactionalism. There is no place for a value-based approach in China’s foreign policy.

China’s behaviour on Azhar is consistent with its role in shielding Pakistan-based individuals and organisations who foment terror in the region. Analysts point out that it had staved off US pressure in the past to list Pakistan-based Taliban operatives (such as the Haqqani Network) at the UN and relented only when certain concessions, that provided a face-saver for Pakistan, were obtained.

Its action on Wednesday should not come as a surprise. In China’s assessment, the motivations behind extension of the technical hold to absolve Azhar remain sound and aligned to its regional interests. Failing to hold up the bid against Azhar would have impacted China’s relationship with Pakistan — triggering bad blood in a relationship in which China remains deeply invested, hampered its strategic objective of using client states to check the rise of a potential threat (India) and an apprehension that credit for the step — at least in India — will go to the US. It may, as Brookings fellow Tanvi Madan points out on Twitter, also open the space for more such pressure tactics from India.

One of China’s key ploy to contain India’s rise remains in “leveraging mistrust and conflict in relations between India and its smaller South Asian neighbors and engaging in long-term strategic competition to sap India’s will and prevent it from spreading its wings,” Professor J Mohan Malik writes in The Diplomat.

How, then, should this move be interpreted as a diplomatic win for India? Prima facie it appears that since the motion to designate Azhar as a terrorist remains at bay — for the last 10 years at China’s behest — India should be disappointed. This could be a misreading of the development. China is aware of the costs involved in indefinitely extending the technical hold, and it is slowly boxing itself into a corner over an issue that remains largely symbolic.

Listing of the name in 1267 Committee essentially imposes travel ban and hampers the individual’s financial mobility in raising funds, running organisations and conducting subversive acts. But this resolution has proved spectacularly ineffective in achieving its objectives.

Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Saeed has remained listed as a globally designated terrorist under the 1267 Sanctions Committee but that hasn’t hampered his ability to run one of the most dreaded terrorist organisations that target India. Saeed continues to enjoy Pakistani state support and has recently branched into the political mainstream in Pakistan. If the steps have been effective, LeT or even JeM (that remains a proscribed terrorist organisation) would have become ineffectual by now.

But the fact that they continue to thrive and their founders roam around in impunity point to Pakistan’s state support, and as long as Rawalpindi continues with its policy of using terror proxies as part of its foreign policy tool, the fundamental realities won’t change.

It is for China to explain why it goes at such lengths to protect terrorists from being designated in a list that is in all purposes, toothless. As Shivshankar Menon, former Indian foreign secretary, told The Print’s Jyoti Malhotra in an interview, “What good will it do to ban Masood Azhar? It’s not as if the UN is going to march into Islamabad and pick him up."

It is misleading to imagine that China is unaware of the reputational costs it is being forced to undertake. The widely discussed Dawn Leaks article written by Cyril Almeida in Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper in 2016, that revealed the tension between the then Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan military over terror proxies, also had a paragraph explaining that China was increasingly weary of putting a technical hold on Azhar.

“…While China has reiterated its support for Pakistan, it too has indicated a preference for a change in course by Pakistan. Specifically, while Chinese authorities have conveyed their willingness to keep putting on technical hold a UN ban on Jaish-i-Mohammad leader Masood Azhar, they have questioned the logic of doing so repeatedly.”

But the fact that Beijing still feels compelled to do so quite against global opinion and inviting global opprobrium suggests that Pakistan has crucial leverage over China. Some analysts believe that Azhar is an important strategic asset for the ISI, and China is buying peace and security for its CPEC projects and individuals stationed within Pakistan in extending the hold.

Ananth Krishnan writes in The Print that China’s risky strategy of distinguishing between “good and bad” terrorists will fail because “Pakistani deep state, while professing to crack down on some Uighur groups with its left hand, was quietly supporting others with its right, seeing them as useful assets.”

Finally, India has been able to garner wide support for the move, as India’s Ambassador & Permanent Representative to the United Nations Syed Akbaruddin posted on Twitter. The proposal had 13 co-sponsors, that reflects the margin of support for India — a far cry from earlier efforts on this issue.

Finally, the effect of financial market sanctions imposed through the FATF and sanctions on Pakistan from key international players will have a greater impact on degrading Azhar or Saeed’s ability to run terror organisations. Here, India’s efforts won’t be subjected to the Chinese Great Wall.

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Updated Date: Mar 14, 2019 16:42:45 IST

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