Exactly three years ago, when China placed a technical hold on an application to sanction terrorist Masood Azhar, whose Jaish-e-Mohammed orchestrated the Pulwama attack, in the United Nations Security Council 1267 sanctions committee, India began its highest-octane campaign yet to rally international pressure to its cause.
Weeks after China’s March 2016 hold, national security adviser Ajit Doval, then defence minister Manohar Parrikar and external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj all placed the Azhar issue front and centre in their talks with Chinese counterparts. The message from India then was clear: this was a core issue for Delhi, and if Beijing valued its relations with India and it’s international standing on combatting terror, it should play ball.
Fast forward three years, and the attempt to list Azhar has reached nowhere.
The March 2016 technical hold — the 1267 committee’s perplexing rules allow the five permanent and 10 rotating members of the UNSC to place technical holds to delay a bid without giving reason — was followed by two other holds, which forced the 2016 application to lapse.
The following year, India’s prompting led the US, France and Britain to place a fresh application. Beijing again remained the obstacle, placing three holds that again forced the second application to lapse. Beijing’s two vetoes have led Delhi to believe that continuing this would be a futile exercise.
India’s rapprochement with China in 2018 also appeared to push thorny issues such as the Azhar listing and the Nuclear Suppliers Group membership — where Beijing was again the lone obstacle — to the back burner. There has been no clarity from Delhi on why two issues that officials had, three years ago, framed as key touchstones in the relationship with China have faded from the agenda. And, this has coincided with the course correction that led to the April 2018 Wuhan summit.
What is behind Beijing’s calculus? As I wrote in March 2016, the Azhar campaign was always bound to fail, considering the China-Pakistan nexus. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, portrayed as a flagship of Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, has only deepened the nexus.
In conversation with Beijing’s diplomats, the ubiquitous view was that they saw the listing attempt as “playing politics” and aimed at embarrassing Pakistan internationally, but with little real utility on cracking down on the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) chief.
Indian officials say this is hogwash, and listings — even if they have in the past not been enforced — put international pressure that certainly carries value in pushing Pakistan to act, even if not always. Moreover, they say, Beijing follows a double-standard when it demands international cooperation, for instance, on Xinjiang, where the crackdown extends beyond terrorism to clamping down on ordinary Uighur citizens.
Chinese officials have claimed, as recently as September, that evidence was “insufficient”. Yet they have never explained what indeed would be sufficient — or how they deemed evidence was sufficient to support listing of Azhar’s organisation, JeM, but not its chief.
The crux of the matter is this: Beijing believes that its best bet in protecting its assets in Pakistan is the help from the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies. It believes that as far as China’s terror priorities are concerned, such as East Turkestan Islamic Movement terrorists in Pakistan, the Pakistan military has taken action. So, they are more than prepared to turn a blind eye to the Pakistani state’s tolerance and support of anti-India groups, as long as their interests are taken care of.
Where does that leave India?
Social media campaigns for boycotting Chinese products might be a popular response, as was the case following the 2016 veto. Back then, this fizzled, underlining the dependence on Chinese products as well as the fleeting and emotive nature of such responses. It is likely to fizzle again. Moreover, its utility as a policy to pressure Beijing is questionable because a temporary dip in sales of smartphones is unlikely to shape Beijing’s security
policy – India is an important but far from being a crucial market – particularly when China’s “all-weather” ally Pakistan, where it has billions of dollars at stake, is involved.
India’s options are limited, but to start with, India should revert to its 2016 approach of bringing the issue front-and-centre, rather than sidelining it in the apparent interests of its course-correction with China.
Officials may be correct in saying that a fresh application may indeed meet the same fate as the previous ones. But surely there is some utility in keeping the issue alive, as well as to maintain the international pressure and the spotlight on China’s approach to terrorism. A fresh application on Masood Azhar, which could be backed, as in 2017, by other UNSC members, would serve this purpose.
China’s stand on terror will also have a bearing on how the world perceives the situation in Xinjiang, which is under increasing international attention. India is among the many countries that have remained silent in the face of growing international criticism over the situation in Xinjiang. India should make it clear that sensitivities on a core issue of national interest cannot be one-way.
India should also review its ongoing counter-terrorism dialogues with China. Indeed, just two weeks ago, the eighth meeting of the Joint Working Group on counter-terrorism took place in Beijing, led by Mahaveer Singhvi, joint secretary for counter-terrorism at MEA, and Liu Shaobin, the DG of the external security affairs department of the Chinese foreign ministry.
Officials said both sides “assessed and exchanged views on regional and international counter-terrorism situation” and “areas of mutual concerns, including cooperation at the bilateral and multilateral levels”.
Indian officials believe that beyond China, pushing for a review of the UNSC’s rules on sanctioning might be a more productive approach. Last year, Beijing agreed to place Pakistan on the FATF “grey list”. This was after India voiced support for China as it became the vice-chair of FATF. So, past experience has shown that when it comes to deal-making that furthers Beijing’s own interests at the UN, even a precious “all-weather” relationship is negotiable.
The author is a Visiting Fellow at Brookings India and was formerly China correspondent for India Today and The Hindu.