Why China's repeated backing of Masood Azhar is a huge opportunity, not setback for India

There is a lot of frustration in India on the growing proximity between China and Pakistan

Sreemoy Talukdar February 08, 2017 15:23:59 IST
Why China's repeated backing of Masood Azhar is a huge opportunity, not setback for India

There is a lot of frustration in India on the growing proximity between China and Pakistan. The 'iron brothers' have been thick as thieves of late on a variety of geopolitical issues, including cross-border terrorism, to the extreme vexation of India, which is directly affected by it. As if the Chinese stance on Kashmir isn't insulting enough, New Delhi has been bristling at Beijing's repeated attempts to block the United Nations from declaring Masood Azhar a global terrorist, even though his organisation Jaish-e-Mohammad remains a UN-designated terror outfit.

The indignation now threatens to become a tsunami of anger as media reports have emerged that China has once again blocked another attempt to rein in Azhar, whom New Delhi holds responsible for masterminding audacious terrorist attacks on Indian soil including the 2001 attack on Parliament and the 2016 raid on Pathankot air base.

The latest proposal to get Azhar listed on the UN terror catalogue was moved by the Barack Obama administration on 19 January, its last working day, and backed jointly by the UK and France. India wasn't a party to the proposal. Incidentally, French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault during his recent India visit had said there are "very strong arguments in favour" of labelling Azhar and had taken a veiled snipe at Beijing for repeatedly putting a spanner in attempts.

Why Chinas repeated backing of Masood Azhar is a huge opportunity not setback for India

File image of Masood Azhar. Reuters

These do not seem to have made any difference to China. On 2 February, it again put a 'technical hold' on the US-led proposal which makes it the only country in 15-nation UN Security Council to play truant. This is consistent with Beijing's behavior. It had last year put an Indian proposal on hold, extended the 'hold' and then ultimately blocked the move.

While this has understandably generated huge consternation in Indian media and policy circles, I contend that China's recent actions present a huge strategic leverage for India. The fact that Beijing has been repeatedly forced to exercise its veto, exposes its hand on the globally sensitive issue of terrorism and does nothing to its reputation as an aspiring world superpower. Beijing now stands stark naked before the world in full glory protecting repeatedly an internationally-recognised terrorist.

This is also a huge deviation from China's traditional use of obfuscation and ambiguity as foreign policy tools.

For example, it has kept the 3,500-kilometre-long boundary with India at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) deliberately vague and uses it strategically to display strength, as it did by intruding into the India-controlled side bang in the middle of President Xi Jinping's visit in 2014. This was a case of bullying of the Narendra Modi government, which was still settling down, to send a message that the new Indian administration shouldn't take China for granted.

And while the People's Liberation Army was still locked in an eyeball-to-eyeball faceoff with Indian troops, Chinese foreign ministry was telling reporters that "the Chinese government hopes that the two countries can continue to maintain stability and peace in the border area and solve the border issue soon by friendly negotiations."

This is classic Chinese diplomacy of operating through a game of smoke and mirrors.

We saw the latest repetition of this tactic when US secretary of state Rex Tillerson, during his senate confirmation hearing last January, said China's militarisation of South China Sea islands is akin to Russia's annexation of Crimea. Beijing reacted to Tillerson's comments by threatening war through its state-controlled media, yet there is not a shadow of doubt that despite Xi's solemn vow — standing beside Barack Obama in 2015 — never to militarise the Spratly and Paracel chains on South China Sea, Beijing had been surreptitiously beefing up its military presence in the littoral.

The Daily Beast quoted James Fanell, the former director of Intelligence and Information Operations for the US Pacific fleet, as saying that China is likely building up more military infrastructure including “forward deployment of both fighter and bomber aircraft to at least one of the three new naval air stations, to be shortly followed by port calls to these deep water harbors by Chinese naval combatants and even submarines”.

The question to raise, therefore, is what prompted China to abandon its policy of ambiguity and come openly to the aid of Pakistan in protecting Azhar? Surely it is aware of the repercussions in a rapidly-changing global order led by a maverick in the White House? If anything, this may end up irking the Donald Trump administration, which has already taken a hard line on Islamist terrorism. What explains China's desperation?

For answers, let us first take a look at what is happening in Pakistan.

There are increasing signs that Azhar's JeM is now the jihadi epicentre in Pakistan as the influence of Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Saeed wanes. The LeT founder, who later named his outfit Jamaat-ud Dawa and was forced recently to change the name again to Tehreek Azadi Jammu and Kashmir, has been in spotlight of late with the Nawaz Sharif administration placing him under 'house arrest' and curbing his activities. Though largely an eyewash, Pakistan's civil and military establishment are still testing the limits of Trump's patience.

It is here that Jaish has stepped in. In his article for The Indian Express, Praveen Swami writes how JeM is openly recruiting new cadres, holding rallies and raising funds and slowly emerging as the fulcrum of jihadi ideology. The outfit enjoys ISI's blessings and Azhar appears to be outside the ambit of Nawaz Sharif's influence. Putting UN sanctions on him may even backfire on Pakistan.

Little wonder that Pakistan feels compelled to reach out to its 'iron brother' for help whenever any move emerges of designating Azhar as a global terrorist. But that doesn’t explain why China should be obligated to respond to Pakistan's request.

The roots of Chinese desperation on Azhar may lie with the way it has been investing heavily in the immediate neighbourhood and using its economic prowess to colonise weaker powers.

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, explains in his column for Project Syndicate that this is Chinese way of extending geostrategic influence.

"Through its $1 trillion 'one belt, one road' initiative, China is supporting infrastructure projects in strategically located developing countries, often by extending huge loans to their governments. As a result, countries are becoming ensnared in a debt trap that leaves them vulnerable to China’s influence," he writes.

It stands to reason, therefore, that a dovetailing of interest binds China and Pakistan into an 'iron brotherhood', only not in the way both countries project it to be.

Here lies India's greatest geostrategic leverage. New Delhi must be absolutely clear about the fulcrum of the Sino-Pakistan axis. If China has no option but to bail Pakistan out repeatedly, India must push the limits of Chinese patience by campaigning for more terrorists to be designated by UN by working with global powers. With a sympathetic US administration on its side, India should let China veto each such case and push it further into a corner where China's reputation on terrorism takes a major hit.

All the while, India must shun the rhetoric and keep open a official channel of communication. Two can play the game of smoke and mirrors.

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