An unprecedented diplomatic push led by India and backed by more than a dozen countries finally achieved on 1 May what had been a decade-long effort: designating the Pakistani terrorist and Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar as a global terrorist.
India described the move as “a step in the right direction to demonstrate the international community’s resolve to fight against terrorism and its enablers”.
This was the fourth attempt to list Azhar, the first being in 2009. At every instance, China, wielding its veto, proved to be the stumbling block. Officially, China maintained that the evidence to list Azhar was insufficient.
Explaining its decision to support the listing, Beijing said it was because “recently, relevant countries [read India] revised and re-submitted the materials for the listing proposal to the 1267 Committee.” “After careful study of the revised materials and taking into consideration the opinions of relevant parties concerned, China does not have objection to the listing proposal,” the Chinese foreign ministry said.
Was it only about the evidence? That argument is difficult to buy, considering that the same committee deemed the evidence sufficient, all the way back in 2001, to proscribe the JeM, Azhar’s outfit. It is perhaps a different matter that 18 years on, despite the ban, the JeM continues its activities, underlining the limited value of UN designations beyond the optics.
Nevertheless, politics matters too, and the listing will serve as another lever to ratchet up pressure on Pakistan to crack down on terror. Make no mistake, the Masood listing will hardly be a silver bullet, and the real test will be in keeping up the international effort to pressurise Pakistan to act on groups that have operated with impunity, particularly against the backdrop of its current state of financial vulnerability.
There are probably a combination of factors behind China’s U-turn, the most significant of which was the considerable diplomatic effort led by India, with the support of a number of countries including the US, UK, France and Indonesia, the current chair of the committee.
The new move by the US, following the March technical hold placed by China, to raise the possibility of an open debate on the issue also likely forced China’s hand. The opaque rules of the UNSC committee — which, this long-running saga has reminded us, are in dire need of reforms — had long allowed China to place its blocks without facing public scrutiny.
The Narendra Modi government, for its part, also deserves credit, not only for staking so much on the diplomatic effort, but also for the political gamble it took last year in its rapprochement with China. Modi was strongly criticised by the opposition for holding what was called a “no agenda” Wuhan summit months after the Doklam stand-off. Yet without Wuhan and the recalibration that followed, it is difficult to conceive that China would have been amenable to its U-turn on Azhar.
Following the listing, India said it will “continue with its efforts through international forums to ensure that terrorist organisations and their leaders who cause harm to our citizens are brought to justice.”
At the UN at least, China will remain a challenge. The Masood listing is unlikely to change its underlying calculus of providing diplomatic protection to Pakistan, its close “all weather” ally and the country China refers to as its “iron brother”.
Days before the UN listing, China underlined its continued support to Pakistan when President Xi Jinping met Prime Minister Imran Khan in Beijing. Xi said Pakistan is “China’s all-weather strategic cooperative partner. China and Pakistan are ‘iron friends’ and have always firmly supported each other on issues concerning each other’s core interests.”
“The Chinese side takes Pakistan as a priority in its diplomacy,” he said. “No matter how international and regional situations change, the Chinese side firmly supports Pakistan in safeguarding its sovereignty and national dignity, choosing its own development path suited to its national conditions, combating terrorist and extremist forces, striving for a sound external security environment, and playing a constructive role in international and regional affairs.”
Xi said both sides “reached a series of important consensus on developing China-Pakistan relations”. “At present, major progress has been made in bilateral cooperation in the construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), finance, trade and other aspects,” he said. Notably, Xi also “expressed the hope that Pakistan and India can meet each other halfway and promote the stabilisation and improvement of Pakistan-India relations”.
As much as China is concerned about Pakistan-based terrorism, particularly targeting its western Xinjiang region, it has bigger concerns about the $62 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor. Beijing will certainly worry that an adverse international environment — and any likelihood of further economic punishment on an already teetering economy — could jeopardise the future of its investments there. China has a bigger game at play in Pakistan, and the U-turn on Azhar is unlikely to change that.
The author is a Visiting Fellow at Brookings India and was formerly China correspondent for India Today and The Hindu. Views are personal.