For the fourth time, Beijing has blocked the UN Security Council initiative to declare Jaish-e-Mohammed founder, Masood Azhar, a “global terrorist.” But to see this as an encouragement of China’s support for terrorism in the region would be a complete misreading of the situation. For China, like India needs a peaceful and stable region for its growth and development. Therefore, acts of terror whether in Pulwama or elsewhere could be seen as the last thing that ensures a conducive environment for economic growth and prosperity.
Nonetheless, the Chinese decision at the UN Security Council has raised a series of important questions—especially, whether the current state of Sino-Pakistani relations is a major hindrance to realising a strong India-China partnership.
The JeM had claimed responsibility for the February 14 "fidayeen" attack on the CRPF convoy killing 40 security personnel in Jammu and Kashmir’s Pulwama. After carrying out an air strike at the JeM facilities in Pakistan, India had been on a diplomatic overdrive to build opinion against the hostile neighbour for harbouring terror groups like JeM on its soil.
The move at the UN Security Council, which had the support of all the others in the 15-member body to list Azhar as a global terrorist was, however, blocked by China—one of the five permanent members of the UNSC with the right to veto.
Seasoned Indian diplomats and old China hands in the Indian foreign policy establishment are as baffled by the Chinese move as the rest of the Indian public at Wednesday’s development in New York.
“I really fail to understand why China wanted to go out on a limb in blocking the move against Azhar when the international mood was so overwhelmingly against it,” says a former Indian ambassador to China.
The bafflement notwithstanding, a set of arguments are being put forward by India’s China watchers to explain what the logic behind Beijing’s decision on Azhar could be. They range from internal developments in China to the strong links between the army of the two countries, to the huge multi-billion dollar Chinese investment in Pakistan.
It is well-known that over the years China has become one of the closest friends of Pakistan and has traditionally stayed away from any collective international move aimed at isolating Pakistan. But the linchpin of the Sino-Pakistan relation lies in the strong bond between China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Pakistani Army. Therefore, in China’s Pakistan policy the PLA has traditionally played a key role. Since the JeM and other terror groups are key assets of the Pakistani army that are regularly used by the military establishment in Rawalpindi against India, Azhar’s proscription in effect would have been a major embarrassment for the Pakistan army.
Additionally, some key developments within China could also have played a part in strengthening this move. One of them is linked to the move undertaken by Chinese President Xi Jinping to reform the PLA. He has already trimmed the PLA significantly to turn it into a modern, effective fighting force. But Xi’s anti-corruption drive in recent years had also targeted senior generals of the PLA and brought its finances under close scrutiny. Taking the pedal off the JeM and thus slowing down the isolation of the Pakistani army and its assets at the international stage could be a small price for Xi to pay to keep both the PLA and the Rawalpindi establishment happy and on his side.
China has plans to invest an estimated 60 billion dollars in Pakistan on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is a key element of Chinese President Xi’s pet Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Of this, nearly 40 billion dollars are reported to have been invested in Pakistan. To ensure the safety and security of both its investment and the Chinese personnel engaged in implementing the CPEC in Pakistan, the full support of the Pakistani army is needed. In recent years, there have been a number of attacks on Chinese engineers and other workers involved in this multi-billion project.
From Beijing’s point of view joining the international initiative against Azhar at this juncture could have alienated sections of the Pakistani army, especially key members of the Inter-Services-Intelligence (ISI). Therefore, using its veto to block the proscription of the JeM founder makes more sense as it allows President Xi to earn the gratitude of the Pakistani army at a time it has been facing mounting international pressure.
However, the question remains how does China then deepen and strengthen its ties with India, particularly in view of the Wuhan agreement that created a passage for more trust and confidence between President Xi and Prime Minister Narendra Modi?
Irrespective of the embarrassment the BJP leadership, especially PM Modi, is likely to face in the wake of the Chinese veto at the UN Security Council, Beijing remains committed to working closely with India in dealing with the challenge posed by terrorism emanating from Pakistan.
China’s blocking of the UN initiative against Azhar may well be the topic of discussion for the moment but when the dust settles down a more objective assessment will be done by the Indian establishment on how to take forward the fight against Pakistan’s cross-border terrorism directed against India. Among other countries, Delhi would continue to enlist Chinese help in ensuring that Pakistan dismantles the terror infrastructure on its soil and embark on a more constructive policy in its engagement with India.
There may not be easy answers to this initiative. But few would doubt that Pakistan-based terrorism does not only pose a threat to India but if allowed to grow, it will sooner than later threaten also China’s multi-billion investment in Pakistan.