Masood Azhar was listed as a global terrorist on May 1 by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) 1267 Committee after China withdrew its hold. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said this decision flowed from a lengthy consultative process with all the concerned parties.
Shift in position
The shift in China’s position after a decade-long stalemate can be attributed to many reasons, the first being the changing geo-strategic dynamics in the Indo-Pacific region and mounting U.S.-China tensions. Against this backdrop, China’s support for Azhar, whose organisation, the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), was already proscribed by the UN, would only have nudged India closer to the U.S. Second, the escalation by the U.S. of the matter in the UNSC would have compelled China to openly provide convincing reasons for its stand.
Third, instead of letting the U.S., France and the U.K. take credit for helping India, China would have seen merit in reassuring India on a key concern, which, alongside the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, had emerged as a major bugbear in bilateral ties. India’s air strikes on Balakot in Pakistan had also placed China in a quandary over escalation in hostilities due to terrorist attacks in India by the JeM. China could not have been unmindful of the public sentiment in India over this issue and the fact that reassuring India could pave the way for greater convergence at the second round of the Wuhan Summit in India, possibly later this year. China would also expect such accommodation to soften India’s cut-and-dried position against the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Fourth, with more terror attacks in India and the neighbourhood emanating from Pakistan, and the growing influence of Pakistan-based groups on radical elements throughout the region, China must have realised that the game was simply not worth the candle. Its continued hold would have raised questions about its commitment to fighting global terror, and adversely impacted its image at a time when the country is projecting its “new major power diplomacy” and propounding an alternative narrative on developmental issues such as President Xi Jinping’s “community of common destiny”.
Any change in China’s stand may have been difficult when the UN Sanctions Committee last considered the matter on March 13 because it came too soon after the Pulwama incident. As an “iron brother’’, China would have been loathe to let Pakistan down and endorse India’s claim that Pakistan was complicit in the attack. Moreover, China would not have wanted to give other political parties in India the impression that it was aiding the BJP’s electoral prospects by vacating the hold on the eve of the elections. Notably, its turnaround came after the main phases of the election were over.
Like in the case of Hafiz Saeed of the Lashkar-e-Taiba in 2009, Pakistan is most unlikely to bring Azhar to justice. The ‘deep state’ of Pakistan, backing him since his release from an Indian prison in 1999, will ensure that he remains safe and capable of organising attacks against India without direct attribution.
The next step for India would be to sustain the pressure on Pakistan to take conclusive action against terror outfits operating from its soil. China’s changed position does not in any way dilute its close ties and support for Pakistan, as was reiterated by Mr. Xi in his meeting with Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan during the BRI conference in Beijing before the listing. Nevertheless, China had condemned the Pulwama attack and cooperated at the Financial Action Task Force Plenary Session in Paris in ensuring that Pakistan remained on the “grey list”. Significantly, it had not reacted to India’s ‘pre-emptive strikes’.
Post-Wuhan, India and China have embarked on a path of closer engagement. There is growing room for responding to each other’s concerns. A well-structured India-China dialogue on regional and global terrorism may go a long way in convincing Beijing of the need to sustain pressure on Islamabad to act against terrorists, which is in the interest of the entire global community.
Sujan R Chinoy is Director General, Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi. Views are personal