Pulwama terror attack: China's stance on Masood Azhar should teach India that its 'reset' policy is futile

Among the many lessons India could learn from the Pulwama terrorist attack, a major one could be that the India-China relationship cannot be reset if Beijing's fundamental regional objectives remain the same. Pulwama and its aftermath offer an opportunity to amend our China policy, which periodically falls back into the reverie that appeasing China may somehow limit its adversarial stance towards India. This policy is at variance with history and counterproductive in nature, but its persistence tells us something about the reflexive pacifism that guides our geopolitical outlook.

Consider the way India has handled the issue of Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) chief Masood Azhar being designated a 'global terrorist' by the UN Security Council's 1267 Committee. The Deobandi terrorist outfit has claimed responsibility for the gruesome attack on Indian security forces in Pulwama on Thursday that left 42 jawans of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) dead and many fellow troopers grievously injured. Azhar, who has orchestrated audacious attacks on the Indian Parliament, Jammu and Kashmir Assembly, Pathankot Indian Air Force base and the Indian Army barracks in Uri, has been used by Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) as a cat's paw in its strategy of "bleeding India with a thousand cuts".

Pulwama terror attack: Chinas stance on Masood Azhar should teach India that its reset policy is futile

File image of Masood Azhar. Reuters

However, China has repeatedly foiled India's efforts to bring the radical cleric under UN sanctions. Major powers, including the US, UK and France, have backed New Delhi's long-standing demand, but Beijing has thwarted these efforts using its veto power at the UN and put a "technical hold" on bringing Azhar on the list that would freeze his assets, ban his travel and make it difficult for him to raise funds and run the JeM.

Targeting Azhar could have worked where designating JeM as a terrorist organisation failed because these groups mutate or operate under different aliases to achieve their objectives. For instance, in a statement released on Saturday, the US urged Pakistan to "freeze without delay" the funds and financial assets of JeM and reminded Islamabad that even though it had "outlawed Jaish-e-Mohammed in 2002", the group "still operates in Pakistan".

It may seem that India will continue to work with other global powers, keep pressuring China on Azhar and force Beijing to put the move on a "technical hold" each time, but since the Wuhan summit, India has not pushed Azhar's case at the UN. India interpreted the informal talks between Chinese president Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi as an initiation of a "fragile peace" between the two sides after the Dok la standoff, and subsequently, New Delhi did not raise the contentious subject at the UN in 2018, unwilling perhaps to disturb the "fragile peace".

The stability of any peace process depends on the quality of leverage. The problem with India's "appeasement" approach is twofold — one, it exposes the fact that India lacks any leverage with China on Azhar; and two, Beijing correctly interprets India's pussyfooting as a sign of weakness. It sees no reason to revise its stance on Azhar at the UN because India is in no position to impose any costs on China for its behaviour.

But the issue goes deeper.

Beijing's move is symptomatic of the neat convergence of interests that mark the China-Pakistan axis against India. Terrorist mastermind Azhar, who enjoys Chinese protection from sanctions, is a symbol of China's obstructionism that seeks to arrest India's rise as a major power, as well as a symbol of the revisionism that marks Pakistan's India policy where, as professor C Christine Fair says, resisting India's purported hegemony is a "victory" and "to acquiesce is defeat".

Easy to see why India's beseeching of China on Azhar is bound to fail. China took around 20 hours to condemn the ghastly terrorist incident in Pulwama and squarely refused to entertain any Indian request on designating Azhar at the UN 1267 Committee.

At a media briefing in Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang claimed that China firmly opposes and strongly condemns all forms of terrorism. "We hope relevant regional countries will cooperate to cope with the threat of terrorism and jointly uphold regional peace and stability," the spokesperson said.

China is apparently "deeply shocked" at the terrorist attack, but when asked about whether Beijing will let mastermind Azhar be sanctioned, Geng said: "As to the listing of an individual, we have always upheld an earnest, responsible and professional manner. We always acted in accordance with the requirement of the situation."

Tom Rogan explains this dichotomy in Chinese behaviour in the Washington Examiner: "While China’s defense of Azhar is blatantly immoral, it reflects Xi's transactional approach to international relations. Xi happily keeps more than a million of his own moderate-Muslim citizens in concentration camps while simultaneously defending an Islamic terrorist... Pakistan is China's trade and military access point to the Indian Ocean, so Xi will do anything to keep Islamabad on its side. If that means defending a terrorist, Xi's okay with it."

China can talk about being "earnest, responsible and professional" and flout those very values in its actions. It sees no hypocrisy in putting its own Uighur Muslim citizens in concentration camps to "re-educate them" and strip them of their religious identity while simultaneously protecting a client nation that uses Islamist terrorism as a foreign policy tool. This is because Chinese worldview sees these as fundamentally amoral positions that must be adopted to ensure win-win outcomes both at home and abroad.

The Pulwama terror attack should teach India that unless India sees Pakistan and China as "one hyphenated strategic entity" — as Subhash Kapila wrote in the Indian Defence Review — and takes an integrated policy approach, piecemeal efforts will remain ineffective and even counter-productive.

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Updated Date: Feb 17, 2019 10:21:06 IST

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