By Michael Kugelman
March 21, 2019
On March 13, China placed a “technical
hold” on a resolution calling on the United Nations Security Council to
designate Masood Azhar, the leader of the Pakistani militant group
Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), as a terrorist. Beijing’s intervention effectively
torpedoed the measure. This marked the fourth time that China has prevented
Azhar, who enjoys long-standing ties to the Pakistani security establishment,
from being officially designated a terrorist by the United Nations.
There had been good reason to believe that
this time might be different and that Beijing would step back and let the
resolution get approved. The fact that the fourth time wasn’t the charm speaks
volumes about how deep the partnership between China and Pakistan still runs,
and how far Beijing is willing to go to defend its “iron brother.”
This partnership, motivated by shared
rivalry with India, isn’t as ironclad as the heady official rhetoric (“sweeter
than honey,” “higher than the Himalayas”) might suggest. But it’s still warmer,
deeper, and more strategically vital than just about any other bilateral
relationship in Asia.
And yet Beijing’s decision to block Azhar’s
designation should be read not only as a show of support for Pakistan, but also
as an effort to reaffirm China’s continued commitment to the country—at a
moment when Islamabad may fear Beijing is wobbling.
Over the last year, as the U.S.-India
defence partnership continued to gain speed, Beijing sought a rapprochement of
sorts with New Delhi. In March 2018, amid efforts to move beyond their tense
standoff on the Doklam Plateau in the summer of 2017, Chinese Foreign Minister
Wang Yi made a strong pitch to end confrontation and initiate conciliation.
“The Chinese dragon and Indian elephant must not fight each other but dance
with each other,” Wang declared in a press conference.
Then, in April 2018, Indian Prime Minister
Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping held an informal summit in
Wuhan, China, that led to a commitment to cooperate on joint training programs
for Afghan diplomats. Later that year, there was talk, mainly from the Chinese
side, of potential India-China cooperation on connectivity projects in
Afghanistan—and even in Pakistan.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Beijing has
declined to defend Pakistan in global forums on several occasions over the past
year. In February 2018, it refused to oppose a measure at the Financial Action
Task Force to put Pakistan on its so-called gray list for failing to curb
terrorist financing. In July, Beijing signed on to a public statement issued by
the Heart of Asia initiative (a 14-nation collective focused on promoting
stability in Afghanistan) that condemned JeM and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT)—another
major Pakistan-based, India-focused terror group—by name. This came less than a
year after China did the same with a statement issued at a BRICS summit.
And then came the recent India-Pakistan
crisis, when India and Pakistan launched air strikes on each other’s soil and
brought the subcontinent to the brink of war.
Beijing was quiet throughout the crisis and never expressed public
support for Islamabad. Instead, it called for restraint.
In reality, Pakistan shouldn’t need
reminding that China is still on its side. The India-China rivalry remains
strong and fraught, and it’s destined to deepen in the coming years as the two
Asian giants ramp up competition for markets, mineral resources, and influence.
And a bitter territorial dispute—the cause of a 1962 war—remains unresolved.
Still, signalling is important in international relations, and Beijing’s
obstructionism at the U.N. sent a strong message.
To be sure, other factors may have prompted
China’s move as well. With Pakistan facing mounting debt to Beijing from CPEC,
and with several Belt and Road countries having backed out of projects over the
past year due to financing concerns, Beijing may have wanted to make a gesture
of goodwill to get Islamabad to shake off any emerging discontent over CPEC.
Additionally, Beijing may have wanted to offer a sop to Pakistan to preclude
any chance of Islamabad calling China out for its Uighur policy. While
Pakistan, like every other government of a Muslim-majority country (except
Turkey), has maintained a deafening silence on the matter, one can’t rule out
the possibility, however remote, of Prime Minister Imran Khan—a bold leader
with a populist streak—speaking out at some point. If Khan doesn’t take it up,
the opposition may.
All this said, one gets the impression that
Beijing didn’t block Azhar’s listing with glee, and that it did so somewhat
The official Chinese justification for its
technical hold—it needed more time to think the matter through—suggests a level
of indecision. Also, on March 17, Luo Zhaohui, China’s ambassador to India,
struck a conciliatory tone, saying, “We understand India’s concerns and are optimistic
this matter will be resolved.” At the very least, Beijing appears to be trying
to soften the blow of the move for Indian audiences, indicating a desire not to
antagonize New Delhi.
As for New Delhi, it has handled this whole
episode quite well. Even amid shrill calls from some hawkish quarters for
retaliation—including a social media campaign to boycott Chinese goods—India
has reacted quite calmly. The government released a fairly anodyne statement
that spoke of being “disappointed by this outcome” and vowed to “continue to
pursue all available avenues to ensure that terrorist leaders who are involved
in heinous attacks on our citizens are brought to justice.”
This was the right move. At the end of the
day, China’s move doesn’t amount to much. It’s symbolic at best. Had Azhar been
sanctioned, he would have faced an assets freeze, an arms embargo, and a travel
ban. However, according to multiple Indian media reports as well as Pakistan’s
own foreign minister, Azhar is very ill and hardly likely to move about.
However, based on past precedent, even if
we assume Azhar is still actively driving JeM’s operations and strategy,
listing him would have had a minimal impact—especially in the context of
Pakistan. Hafiz Saeed, the leader of LeT, was listed in December 2008 (a move
China did not prevent) just days after his group carried out the Mumbai terror
attacks. Over the past decade, Saeed has largely lived unencumbered and led the
life of a law-abiding thought leader: He has moved about freely, delivered fiery
public lectures, and given media interviews. This year, he even filed
(unsuccessfully) a formal request for his U.N. terror designation to be
Ultimately, India wants to be seen as a
responsible rising power. Rather than fixating on the symbolic pass China gave
to an infirm militant, New Delhi is better off tapping into the growing resolve
within the international community to combat Pakistan-based terrorism, and
working multilaterally in other forums to curb a threat that is of great global