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 grudgingly.
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 repealed.
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 concern.