China’s U-turn on Azhar

A Larger S Asia Strategy

Masood Azhar, chief of the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM). AFP

China’s move to lift the ‘hold’ on the UN 1267 Sanctions Committee resolution to declare Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar a ‘global terrorist’ is a well thought-out move on the South Asian chessboard, part of a much larger diplomatic effort to preserve peace in the region so as to avoid any adverse impact on its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. Protecting this signature trillion-dollar initiative from any form of conflict is now the highest Chinese foreign policy priority, especially on two of the six BRI routes — the China-Pakistan and China-Myanmar corridors — threatened by durable disorder.

Pakistan and Myanmar provide China with important land-to-sea access that helps Beijing get around the Malacca ‘chokepoint’ and hugely reduces transportation cost for its energy imports. The Chinese live in dread of a US naval blockade of the Malacca Straits in the event of exacerbated conflict. Hence the determined effort to cultivate Pakistan and Myanmar to seek an outlet to the Indian Ocean. China’s geostrategic weakness of a small East Asia-focused coast (in contrast to India’s location in the middle of rimland Asia, with large coastlines in both East and West) has influenced much of its recent foreign initiatives, the BRI included.

Having interacted with a large number of Chinese academics, business and political leaders in recent weeks, many of them with links to decision-makers in Beijing, I got the feeling that China was almost desperate to avoid escalation of the India-Pakistan conflict post-Pulwama. If Kashmir, including the Pakistani part of it, became a battleground post-Balakot, the Chinese would not be able to operationalise the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which begins in that area. The Balakot airstrike and Pakistan’s retaliatory air raids raised the spectre of an India-Pakistan war and left Beijing worried, because that would unsettle the CPEC at its point of origin. Who would believe that Chinese maps put up at the April 25-27 BRI conference showing the whole of Kashmir (and also Arunachal Pradesh) as Indian territory were a mistake! It may be one subtle effort to signal to Delhi that BRI would not undermine its sovereignty concerns on Kashmir. And why such a move just when Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale visits Beijing amidst the humdrum of the BRI conference that India boycotted a second time!

The Chinese apprehend that Indian tit-for-tat covert operations inside Pakistan could intensify. Indian intelligence has assets in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) amongst the Shias, who resent resettlement of Sunni Punjabi ex-servicemen in Gilgit and Baltistan. A serious Indian effort to get them to attack Chinese-funded Pakistani assets is not a threat that Beijing can wish away. The Chinese already have trouble where the CPEC terminates – in Balochistan. The April 18 ambush in that restive province, in which Baloch rebels dressed in Pakistani military uniforms pulled out bus passengers, segregated military personnel, and shot 14 of them, has raised the hackles in Islamabad and Beijing. The Baloch Raji Ajoi Sangar (BRAS), an united platform of three separatist rebel groups, have stepped up the heat in Pakistan’s most-endowed province, beginning with the attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi late last year.  That attack showed that the Baloch rebels were now willing — and somewhat capable — of hitting even outside their province. 

With huge investments in Balochistan’s mineral resources and in the deep sea port of Gwadar, the Chinese surely don’t fancy a powerful Baloch separatist movement that India (and now Iran) may back to counter Pakistan’s terror exports to Kashmir (and Sistan). In his book Kaoboys of R&AW, the late B Raman wrote about how India had used its assets in Sindh in the late 1980s to force Pakistan to stop making mischief in Punjab. That could be repeated in Balochistan. Indeed, early in his tenure, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had raised the prospect, as had NSA Ajit Doval.

Baloch rebels

The Jaish-ul-Adl ambush on Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, in which 27 died, a day after the Pulwama suicide bombing, has left Iran fuming. The Revolutionary Guards chief even threatened Pakistan with ‘dire consequences’ if such attacks continued. Pakistan has recently alleged that the Baloch rebels who murdered 14 Pakistani military personnel at Ormara “came from Iran, where they now have bases.” 

This is Pakistan’s (and China’s) worst nightmare — a joint India-Iran covert effort to arm and shelter Baloch rebels. Pakistan has already announced plans to fence its border with Iran. Insurgencies in PoK and Balochistan do not augur well for the smooth functioning of the CPEC — and the one way to prevent India and Iran from backing them is to restrain the Pakistani ‘deep state’ from its terror exports. Withdrawing the hold on the UN resolution against Masood Azhar is Beijing’s first symbolic gesture to placate India and signal to Iran that Beijing will try to rein in the Pakistani terror factory. Pakistan itself has much to do to escape blacklisting by the Financial Action Task Force. Just ‘grey-listing’ is costing its economy nearly $6 billion annually. 

The Chinese are also making a serious effort to get the Burmese peace process going. The Burmese army recently declared suspension of operations for two months against the Northern Alliance rebel groups in Kachin and Shan provinces. Of them, the Kokang group MNDDA is a Chinese surrogate. Peace in North Myanmar is crucial for the Chinese to implement their projects under the BRI and exploit the region’s considerable natural resources. That the Burmese army announced suspension of operations after its chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s visit to Beijing (followed by Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to the BRI conference) is significant. China now has a huge interest in regional peace to ensure that its BRI routes are not affected by any conflict.

(The writer is a veteran BBC journalist and author)

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