Azhar’s time is coming to an end, China notwithstanding

Predictably, China on Wednesday night blocked the UN Security Council move to designate Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar as a ‘global terrorist’ pursuant to UNSC Resolution 1267 and others that apply to Al Qaeda, Islamic State and their associated groups and individuals. The official Indian response, “We are disappointed,” sounded like a surprised, muted one. Was something afoot that had made Delhi expect a different stance from Beijing?  

China defended its action, with its foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang saying that it was acting “to make sure that the committee will have enough time to study the matter so that the relevant sides will have time for dialogue and consultation” and that “Only a solution that is acceptable to all sides could fundamentally provide a chance for a lasting solution to the issue. China is ready to communicate and coordinate with all sides including India to properly handle this issue”.

This is the fourth time China has put a hold on designating Azhar in the last 10 years. We could, therefore, ask in exasperation, how many more years does China need to come to the conclusion that the rest of the world has long come to about Masood Azhar? We could also express shock that China insists on protecting Azhar even after the Pulwama attack and India signalling that it was not going to take it lying anymore. But moral outrage and emotional responses won’t help.  

Why does China behave so?

Firstly, the second part of Lu Kang’s statement seems to indicate that it wants to work out a ‘solution’ between India and Pakistan on the matter. This is entirely possible if handled with realism, and should not be scoffed at. China has the leverage with Pakistan, and quite possibly with Azhar, to make things happen. Question is, what would China want in return, and can we afford that price?

But why is China so protective of Azhar in the first place? The big picture is, Azhar is important to the Pakistani establishment; the Pakistani establishment is important to China; and, therefore, Azhar is important to China. Beijing has long used Pakistan as its ‘Cuba’ against India and has even helped make it a nuclear and missile power in a long-term strategy to keep India boxed within South Asia. Now, increasingly, China and Pakistan are also close economic partners, especially in the form of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The CPEC passes over the Karakoram mountains, all the way to Gwadar in Balochistan. It is dotted with power plants and other infrastructure and industries all along. China has invested tens of billions of dollars in CPEC. More importantly, the CPEC is China’s gateway to its global ambitions and its model of globalisation.

That makes it important for China to ensure that Pakistan remains stable and non-volatile internally, and that Pakistan-based terror groups, especially the likes of Masood Azhar’s Jaish-e-Mohammad and Hafiz Sayeed’s Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, do not turn their guns on the CPEC. In fact, experts say that China has turned Azhar’s Jaish into the bodyguard of CPEC. It’s the old tactic of making the bully the class leader, and it is the least expensive way for both Pakistan and China to secure the project. Why would China willingly support the UNSC move against Azhar, that too to give comfort to India?

But that’s not sustainable

No matter how important Azhar is, China cannot continue to block the move against him for long. Firstly, China is unlikely to predicate its relationship with India on an individual who is meant to be expendable for both Pakistan’s Deep State and even more so for China, if India continues to keep up and graduate pressure over Azhar on Pakistan and on India’s Western friends.

Indeed, it was France, Britain and the US that moved the fresh proposal to proscribe Azhar following the Pulwama terror attack. On Thursday, an unnamed US diplomat ranged against the Chinese move, warning Beijing that if it continued to block the designation, “responsible member-states may be forced to pursue other actions at the Security Council. It shouldn't have to come to that”. That’s tough diplomatic language. Let’s see if it’s matched in action.

Lesson to learn

The Chinese “slap on New Delhi’s face”, as somebody described it, is not a bad thing. It’s one more reminder for India that it cannot depend on other countries to solve its problem. No matter how tough the US talks today, we cannot be sure what Washington will do when push comes to shove. After all, the Trump administration is trying hard to arrive at a trade deal with China. Masood Azhar and Pakistan-sponsored terrorism are India’s problems. We have to deal with them ourselves. Whether we do so diplomatically, militarily or a combination of both should be dictated by a long-term plan for the India-Pakistan relationship, not by an approaching election.  

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Azhar’s time is coming to an end, China notwithstanding

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