What can India do to influence China on Masood Azhar?

India-China dialogue has expanded but the two countries are not on the same page on terror

March 22, 2019 12:15 am | Updated 12:44 am IST

(FILES) In this photograph taken on February 4, 2000, Masood Azhar (L), chief of the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), addresses a press conference in Karachi. - For eight days in 1999 the world watched in horror as hijackers diverted an Indian Airlines flight to Afghanistan and held the passengers hostage, the drama ending only when Delhi agreed to release three Kashmiri militants. One of the militants freed was Masood Azhar, who later went on to found Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), the militant group which claimed responsibility in February 2019 for the deadliest attack in three decades in Indian-held Kashmir. (Photo by Aamir QURESHI / AFP)

(FILES) In this photograph taken on February 4, 2000, Masood Azhar (L), chief of the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), addresses a press conference in Karachi. - For eight days in 1999 the world watched in horror as hijackers diverted an Indian Airlines flight to Afghanistan and held the passengers hostage, the drama ending only when Delhi agreed to release three Kashmiri militants. One of the militants freed was Masood Azhar, who later went on to found Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), the militant group which claimed responsibility in February 2019 for the deadliest attack in three decades in Indian-held Kashmir. (Photo by Aamir QURESHI / AFP)

Last week, China placed a hold on the listing request for Pakistan-based terror group Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM)’s leader Masood Azhar at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The Ministry of External Affairs said that it was “disappointed” by the outcome. Alka Acharya and Jabin Jacob talk of the Azhar problem, the Wuhan summit, and the strategic view of India’s relationship with China, in a discussion moderated by Suhasini Haidar . Edited excerpts:

India has taken a much calmer tone than what we have seen in public on China’s refusal to allow the listing at the UNSC of Masood Azhar. Do you think this will work?

Alka Acharya: I don’t see why not. Yelling and screaming was not helping the issue. I think the significant thing to understand is that the Chinese have not provided any indication as to whether they are going to change on this particular issue. Whereas, on other issues they have — for instance, blacklisting the organisation (JeM), or putting Pakistan on the Financial Action Task Force Grey List. So, there are also various shades to China’s stand and actions at the global level.

Professor Jacob, would you agree? That China’s objections to listing Azhar are probably not ideological, and therefore, there is some room for flexibility? Or would you say that China is essentially giving a strong message by refusing to list him for the fourth time in a decade, and India should take that message.

Jabin Jacob: Yes, definitely. India should take a message from that. It’s not ideological, but I would say there is a larger issue here, which is of politics. Clearly this is a different China that we’re dealing with. It’s not the same China that we’ve seen over the last 10 years. I think the problem is that India is too subtle. If India does not take a consistent position, or a position that appears to evolve into something, the Chinese are not going to take you seriously. While we say that China is not supporting us on this aspect, we also have our annual counter-terrorism exercise with China. I think that sort of mixed messaging doesn’t work.

On the one hand, if you seem too conciliatory with China, then it may see that as a sign of weakness and therefore not change its position. Is this actually a larger challenge for India when it comes to China?

A.A.: I don’t agree that because China has chosen to block Azhar’s listing, it amounts to its contradictory stand on other issues with us. China has tried to take a consistent position as to why it has to blacklist an individual, whereas it is taking a slightly different position with regard to the organisation (JeM).


The fact is that the India-China dialogue has expanded. It has now brought terror on board, but we need to be discussing this more because I don’t think we are on the same page as far as terror is concerned. It is a part of the strategic dialogue and that’s a start. We are together on many multilateral platforms, so we could start communicating our position to the Chinese much more clearly, but at the same time not permit this issue to derail what is a much larger process.

In India there is no stomach for any kind of dialogue with Pakistan. And yet with China, every time there is a pushback from China, this is pretty much in your face when China refuses to list Masood Azhar despite the kind of push India has made diplomatically after the Pulwama attack. How do you explain this dichotomy?

A.A: In the last five years, the whole situation with Pakistan has become more rigid. So, if in the past we did see an attempt to balance no terror or no dialogue till the terror attack stopped, but at the same time you are opening up other channels. Increasingly, you are seeing that the Chinese are becoming more and more significant players in this region, so you are in a bit of a dilemma. Because you need to ensure that your relationship with China doesn’t get derailed. There is a lot of suspicion about how the Chinese are preparing to support Pakistan. You can’t shut that door because then you are really only dependent on the Americans. It’s not just about China, India and Pakistan. It’s about the Americans wanting to disengage; the Russians wanting to get into Afghanistan via Pakistan. Do you think the Americans are going to play our game with the Pakistanis for us? I’m not too sure.

Why does China continue to stand firm on the Azhar issue in particular?

J.J.: This is clearly tactical as far as the Chinese are concerned. The BRICS forum in Goa refused to allow any mention of terror in the joint declaration. But the next year, in China, they were willing to go along. So, it’s up and down. And I suppose the Chinese are not completely at home in Pakistan, so they also need to put pressure on the Pakistanis and tell them to behave vis-a-vis Chinese influence.

The larger issue is about communication. What is the communication that India has with China on this particular issue? At the end of January, we had the 8th India-China Joint Working Group Meeting on Counter-Terrorism. And if you look at the MEA website... it doesn’t really inform you about what is going on. The Chinese can get away with that. But in India the government needs to communicate to the strategic community and to the public. You can’t deal with the Chinese using Chinese methods and ignore how the system works at your end.

Do you think the diplomatic capital that India is using when it comes to the Azhar issue is worth it?

J.J.: There are two parts to this. The first is, of course, this is an overkill, because we don’t have the capacity to follow up. The kind of effort that we have to put into this is only worthwhile if we can follow up with other global capitals, even the small players, through the year. But on the other hand, there is a certain value that the people in the Ministry dealing with China understand — that China is not comfortable being named and shamed and sticking out as the only objector in this.

Don’t you think that’s the old China? I think the new China doesn’t have a problem sticking out.

J.J.: True, but we don’t know if we have come to that realisation.

A.A.: I would say it’s the reverse. I think today China is far more wary of its international image and therefore the need not to stand out like a sore thumb, especially when there is a global consensus on certain issues. Now, does the Azhar issue actually dent that image, or does it really show China as a power which has double standards?

How much of an impact did the U.S.’s open statements challenging China have on China’s own decision? Or do you think China’s mind was made up?

J.J.: Yes, the Chinese do take the Americans seriously and that’s again a question of capacity because the Americans can follow up. They can put others under pressure to follow what the Americans think is in their interest. In the case of terrorism or the Nuclear Suppliers Group, these are important for India perhaps, but they are not important to other states. And it is possible to keep the other states interested if we have the capacity to consistently put pressure. As long as that’s not the case, the Chinese will not be moved.

On the question of political wrangling... on the one hand, you have the government accusing the Congress party leader of meeting the Chinese Ambassador. You have criticism from the Opposition that, despite the Wuhan summit, the Prime Minister has been unable to get any concessions from China. How much is this political issue over China playing out in Beijing as well?

A.A.: There are three dimensions here. One, over a period of time the Chinese have seen that there is a fairly consistent position in India. Whichever government has been in power has more or less taken the same framework, which is one of engaging and moving the relationship forward. Therefore, I am sure many people in China do not take this internal wrangling very seriously. I think on the whole these charges are of necessity, purely political. So, you will have to say, ‘Wuhan is in tatters’. I don’t agree with that. Wuhan was about something else.

The second point is that we have not yet grasped that the China-Pakistan relationship is undergoing a major transformation, and we continue to take this anti-India perspective as the dominant one, which it is not. China is far too invested in Pakistan. Anti-India is lower down, it’s not the top priority.

And the final point is that China-India relations are also not static. And the best way to beat this is to get the India-China game up.

J.J .: I agree that the China-Pakistan relationship is something that has transformed over time and I also agree with Alka that it’s not the anti-India sentiment in China that really drives matters. I think where we have failed is in reassessing our relationship with Pakistan. The more you disengage from Pakistan, the more of a free hand you give the Chinese. Trade is the only way we can fix things in many ways.

Alka, you said Wuhan is not in tatters. Yet we see no movement from China on India’s NSG membership and on Azhar. On the other hand, India has torn down some of the irritants vis-a-vis China, whether it is sidelining the Tibetan leadership or not speaking about the Chinese building infrastructure in Doklam. Why do you say the Wuhan summit still carries some weight?

A.A.: The answer to that would depend on your understanding of what Wuhan was all about. It was an informal meeting between the two leaders to address what had become a dangerous impasse in the relationship. Two sides were eyeball to eyeball for 72 days. This was a means to defuse that situation and evolve a modus operandi for ensuring that this relationship does not get derailed. More importantly, what is the framework within which this relationship has to develop? It was not issue-based. As to whether we have got what we want from China... I think we need to figure out where this relationship is going, particularly how we are managing the economic aspect. That ultimately is going to provide the ballast.

J.J.: Wuhan was tactical. My problem with Wuhan is that you are moving away from process-based interactions between governments. Instead we have an individual-based approach. This might work in China because President Xi Jinping is the all-powerful. But not here.

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