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The Listing of Masood Azhar and India-China Relations

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The listing of Pakistan-based terrorist Jaish-e-Mohammad’s (JeM), Masood Azhar, as a global terrorist under the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) 1267 Sanctions Committee has cemented a diplomatic victory for India on the global stage. The listing follows after deadly Pulwama attack carried out by JeM on Indian forces in Kashmir and the subsequent February 2019 Balakot strikes by India inside Pakistan. Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba’s (LeT) Hafiz Saeed, Azhar had become India’s most wanted terrorist and the country’s main enemy.

Azhar’s JeM has carried out some of India’s deadliest terror attacks – barring the 26/11 Mumbai attacks by LeT – such as the Parliament attacks of 2001 and the J&K assembly attacks of 2001. Recently, it has become active once again with the Pathankot attack of 2015, followed by Nagrota attack of 2016 and Pulwama in 2019 – all in Kashmir.

While Hafiz Saeed was listed in 2008, without opposition from China, Azhar’s listing as a global terrorist had proven to be a challenge for India, even though the JeM had been listed as a terrorist organization way back after the Parliament attacks. Unlike most other cases, in Azhar’s case, China – a permanent member of UN Security Council – always ended up blocking the listing citing ‘technical reasons’ such as lack of consensus among parties concerned or insufficient information.

Thus, while the attempts to list Azhar have been made since 2009, they have consistently failed for the last 10 years. It is also a fact that regular and persistent attempts to list Azhar began to be made only after the 2015 Pathankot attacks. Prior to that, after attempting to get Azhar listed in 2009, India had become complacent and left the issue pending. The fact that China has blocked the move to list Azhar four times in a row further compounded the challenge for India.

Thus, this overdue listing sends out an important message to the citizens as well as to other countries – that India is firm and sure in the delivery of its positions, especially where it concerns national security. In the aftermath of the Pulwama attack, India had promised a strong response on both military and diplomatic fronts, and with Azhar’s listing, this has become complete.

From Pakistan’s point of view, the present issue and the successful listing has implications for India’s security scenario as well as foreign policy and should be seen in the context of wider regional developments. While the listing itself is only symbolic and will have little effect on Pakistan-sponsored terrorism against India, it has certainly imposed costs on Pakistan for acting in a recalcitrant manner. The international situation and India’s position in it has changed in such a way that it would no longer be possible for Pakistan to ‘bleed’ India and get away with it cost-free – as the Balakot strikes, FATF (Financial Action Task Force) grey-listing due to terrorism and the recent Azhar listing showed. In the present situation, Pakistan realizes that it will have to face military and diplomatic costs.

This is compounded by the fact that Pakistan itself is facing challenges in terms of separatist groups operating through its Baloch and Pashtun populations, while it is becoming increasingly costly for it to actively support the Kashmir insurgency. Its growing interlinkages with China, its dwindling financial independence and international isolation and irrelevance, have all changed the regional factors in the last few years.

Moreover, the significance of Azhar’s listing after persistent efforts by India shows that India’s relationship with her partners has reached a stage where the country can no longer be easily dismissed or satisfied with half-measures. The tough actions taken by the government in Balakot were a game-changer in pushing the Azhar listing as well.

Prior to strikes like Balakot (2019) and Uri (2016), India used to rely solely on ‘diplomatic’ pressures to force Pakistan to crack down on terror groups within its territory, as was seen after the 2001 Parliament attacks and the 2008 Mumbai attacks. However, the increasingly tough response towards Pakistan and refusal to engage in futile talks has contributed in strengthening India’s position as a strong global power.

It has also disposed other countries – like France, UK, US, China and Russia – more favorably towards India. The listing could be made possible after China lifted the ‘technical hold’ it had placed on it for the last few years. The rapid improvement in India-China ties after the Wuhan summit of 2018 and the series of economic and political measures to engage with each other after Wuhan, including cooperation in South Asia, has helped in moving China to allow the listing of Azhar. Pakistan was also forced to come on board with China.

Azhar and China: A Peculiar Background

The precise reasons for China blocking the move to list Azhar so persistently in the past and agreeing to it now, remain shrouded in mystery. But one thing that is clear is that the changed India-China relationship over the past one year has played a major role in facilitating China to overcome its compulsions and list Azhar. The informal Wuhan summit between the leaders of the two countries opened a new chapter in their relationship and infused a shared cultural-political direction and positivity where there was previously a mechanized and distant approach in the past.

The Wuhan summit infused life into a relationship where the past was marked by suspicion. After Wuhan, not only did India drop its public pressurizing of China on the Azhar issue but also gave the other country a lot of space and understanding. Even after the Pulwama attack, when China once again put the listing on hold due to ‘technical issues’, the Indian response was positive and warm as was the Chinese commitment that the listing would be accomplished in time – as it was done.

At the same time, we must clarify why the listing was overdue on China’s part and why the country had to keep Pakistan in loop before arriving at a final decision. The background reasons for putting the listing on the backburner for so long are more complex and historical than mere India-China rivalry or China trying to helm in India. In fact, the myth of India-China rivalry was not a factor at all in the entire Azhar episode.

Thus, the widespread tendency to paint China in a negative light for putting the Azhar application on hold till recently is misplaced. At the very outset, it should be clear by now that the China-Azhar issue involved factors other than the sole focus on India. Had China meant ill towards India, then it would never have approved of Hafiz Saeed listing in 2008, it would not have allowed Pakistan to be put on the grey list of Financial Action Task Force (FATF) for terror funding and it would not have publicly reprimanded Pakistan after Balakot strikes and supported India. Moreover, over the last one year, China has collaborated with India on every other issue and has not blindly supported Pakistan diplomatically on substantive issues in conflict with India.

All these issues – especially public listing of Pakistan on FATF and Pulwama condemnation – have been much bigger than getting an infirm and bed-ridden terrorist listed. Therefore, the Azhar listing and the reasons for its past blockades have nothing to do with any deliberate obstructions on the part of China.

The explanation for China’s behaviour lies in three main directions –

First, historical politics of terrorist organizations in the Af-Pak (Afghanistan-Pakistan) region and its impact on China;

Second, China’s traditional poise and the Chinese psyche of not buckling under pressure and of honouring commitments, regardless of how the world paints it;

Third, China’s recently transforming relationship with India which added a new dimension to the Chinese approach towards the Af-Pak region.

The Af-Pak Politics: Brief Antecedents of Azhar and China

The Af-Pak region has been marked by rising terrorism during the last four decades. The entry of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in 1979 and the ensuing jihad to dislodge the Soviet-backed government led to the growth of new terrorist outfits that have only increased over the last 40 years. This jihad was supported by the United States and gave birth to Taliban. Pakistan as an ally of United States, played an important role in this.

By 1989, the jihadists – calling themselves Afghan freedom fighters – had acquired control and the United States exited the region. Between 1990 and 1996, there was a flux in the country as competing factions of militant outfits and prominent Afghan leaders sought to take control of the government. In this ensuing flux, Taliban, with Pakistani support, easily managed to capture Kabul and establish an Islamic government. They ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, until the 9/11, after which US once again entered the region and eliminated their ranks, installing the civilian government of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan.

This entire period, especially up to 1996 saw the immense strengthening of Pakistan and Pakistan-sponsored terrorists. Even though the later Taliban leadership got divided within their ranks and even rebelled against excessive interference by Pakistan, these skirmishes did not diminish Pakistan’s prime king-maker position in the terror nexus of the Af-Pak region. Also, being a US ally gave it full power to act with impunity.

In those peak times, Pakistan – with its newfound power – intensified its policy to ‘bleed India by a thousand cuts’. The post-1989 situation has been the worst ever in Kashmir, completely changing the face of terrorism, giving birth to the likes of Yasin Malik and leading to the genocide and exodus of Kashmiri Pandits.

It was during these developments in the Af-Pak region that Maulana Masood Azhar emerged as a key player. Azhar had played an important role in the Afghanistan jihad and had subsequently gone on to train and recruit Muslims for jihad in other countries such as Somalia, Sudan and Bangladesh as well. After 1990 and the settlement of the Afghan issue, he focused his attention on waging war against India. Azhar has been known to have substantial influence on the terrorist organizations in the region, including both the factions of Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as with al-Qaeda.

Within this terror network of Af-Pak we must also factor in the parallel anti-China Uighur Muslim movement in China’s Xinjiang province which shares borders with the Af-Pak region. This region of China began to see disturbances from the late 1970s onwards, in the post-Mao era when Deng Xiaoping had taken over and had started opening up the Chinese economy. As a result of this regional globalization, China’s Uighur Muslims began to be radicalized, directly with support of Pakistani Islamic extremists. Thus, parallel to the jihad in Afghanistan, China was going through its own problems with its increasingly militant Uighur population.

The Uighurs, after imbibing the teachings of jihad from Pakistani mullahs, revolted multiple times against China, between 1980 and 1987. In 1990, the Uighur Muslims declared their purpose of waging a jihad against China for the establishment of the East Turkestan state in Xinjiang. They carried out a violent armed rebellion against the police. China blamed the incident on foreign interference and alleged that the terrorists were being trained in the Af-Pak region.

In its subsequent positions, China has held that the Uighur Muslims had even fought alongside Pakistan Taliban in Pakistan’s North and South Waziristan, and that they plan to make the Gilgit region in Pakistan a gateway for the transmission of militants to Xinjiang.

Another watershed came after 9/11, when China prevailed upon the United States to detain some Uighurs in Guantanamo Bay and later, in 2009, widespread riots took place between the majority community of Han Chinese and the Uighur Muslims. There were also increasing attacks by Uighurs on the civilian population.

To deal with this problem of Uighur Muslim terrorism, China adopted a practical approach. On the one hand, it decided to contain Muslims within its own territory by imposing severe restrictions and internment camps. On the other hand, China decided to ensure that the terrorists and countries in the Af-Pak region do not train Uighur Muslims or use them against China. While relations with Pakistan were already cordial and were further deepened to contain Pakistan’s radicalism, China also engaged with the Af-Pak terrorists like Taliban and Masood Azhar’s JeM, which had an expansive terror network and which had even fomented unrest against the Pakistani government on one occasion. Keeping Azhar’s JeM in loop, along with Taliban and others, has been vital for China to ensure peace in Xinjiang.

In 2000, China became the first non-Muslim country whose senior diplomat had talks with Taliban’s Mullah Omar. China managed to extract an understanding out of Mullah Omar that Uighur Muslims would not launch attacks in China but will continue to remain within Taliban ranks.

Thus, China ensured, largely, that Uighurs and other Muslim fundamentalists and terrorists based in the Gilgit region do not foment unrest in Xinjiang. An Uighur Muslim living in Gilgit said about China that, “They keep us under scrutiny, even by extending friendship and giving incentives for the community.” (Jaffrey, 2015). It is important to understand China’s attitude here in order to understand how the country approaches issues. Despite the fact that the Uighurs created havoc and challenged sovereignty of China declaring jihad, yet, China deftly and ruthlessly contained the movement without losing its grit or patience.

This delicate situation in the Af-Pak region and China’s direct connection with it helps to explain why China has been reluctant to sanction Azhar. In case of China’s readiness to sanction Hafiz Saeed in 2008, there was not much of a problem, since the LeT was solely focused on Kashmir, rather than being involved in Af-Pak. But Azhar’s JeM was a major player in Af-Pak.

However, this delicate balance started unravelling about a year ago, when China-Pakistan cooperation started deepening. Pakistan was already bearing the brunt since 2007, when it acted against terrorists at its Lal Masjid in 2007 for abducting Chinese girls. After that episode, a number of enraged terrorists combined to form the TTP to wage war against Pakistan. However, the balance with the Uighurs has largely been maintained due to China’s cautious approach.

But for the past year, the rise of Islamic State in Afghanistan and the radicalization by JeM’s ally, TTP, has shaken things for China. The changing face of terrorism in Af-Pak has made Azhar less relevant than before and made all delicate bargains struck with Af-Pak terrorists increasingly meaningless. China also realizes that its rise on the world stage and the open account of its hostilities with Uighur has made it an inevitable target of terrorists and, therefore, with the new realities, the old practical approach needs to be gradually changed. Last year, TTP sent out a message saying that all those foreign countries who cooperate with Pakistan will be on their hit list. Even the Islamic State declared that it plans to avenge China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims, and declared that China was on the same list as India, United States and Israel. In 2015, it called out to China’s Muslims to “wake up” and “take up weapons.”

At the same time, Azhar, though still powerful among the ranks of TTP allied terrorists, was weakening in health, while the Taliban has been engaged in talks with the US, limiting its attacks only to Afghan forces. China has also become more ruthless in its treatment of terrorism as witnessed by the lodging of a million Uighurs in internment camps in China. This changing dynamics makes the past reasons for China supporting a block on Azhar ban much less relevant, regardless of what Pakistan thinks.

The Af-Pak dynamics, thus, makes clear why China refused to support a ban on Azhar and how this attitude gradually dissipated, with changing regional factors. Besides these historical reasons, there were also deeper reasons at play.

India-China Relationship and the Global Dynamics

One of the other major reasons that China acceded to India’s demands was the positive relationship built in the aftermath of the Wuhan summit between India and China. They initiated a landmark ‘2+1’ format in which India and China would engage jointly with a third country, such as Afghanistan. China also refused to accept Nepal’s bid to marginalize India’s role in Nepal, sending a firm message on its post-Wuhan commitment. In the subsequent interventions of both India and China in Africa, China once again offered a cooperative approach in order to dissipate the public perception that the two countries were competing, even though China’s investments in Africa are much larger in size than India’s.

There was little need for China to actively engage with India in these kind of cooperative partnerships as token gestures, since it was already on a better footing. Yet not everything is viewed from a ‘strategic’ or calculative perspective and China – as is evident from its relationship with Pakistan – values long-term relationships.

At the same time, there were other factors at play as well. China’s rise on the world stage has arrived. It is fast overtaking the Western world in technological and scientific fields as well as in newer applications to military, cyberspace, outer space and in economy. The deep discomfiture of the Western world with China is quite evident. Regardless of the internal divisions between America and Europe and within their own countries, they are all united against China. Their politicians – from whether left-wing or right-wing – and their self-proclaimed progressive media and intellectuals, regardless of their own differences, share the common fundamentalism towards China.

This was made most clear in a recent racist speech of Kiron Skinner, the chief of policy planning in the US State Department, when she said that, “When we think about the Soviet Union and that competition, in a way, it was a fight within the Western family. Karl Marx was a German Jew who developed a philosophy that was really within the larger body of political thought…That’s not really possible with China. This is a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology. And the United States hasn’t had that before. It’s also striking that it’s the first time we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian.”

Nobody – least of all a government representative – has portrayed the exact Western attitude towards China as clearly as was done by Ms. Skinner recently. In the Western worldview, even the Cold War pales before the US-China rivalry, since Russia was a part of the ‘Western family’. The ‘fight’ is taking the shape of a civilizational fight – that’s how the West sees it. For the West, countries like India, China and Japan are allies as long as they do not undermine the modern era dominance of the West. This dominance is now breaking.

And the US-China trade war is just the start of American project to disrupt and obstruct China. The US is leaving no stone unturned to harass China – from the arrest of Huawei’s founder’s daughter to openly, along with Europe, branding China for theft of intellectual property. When Trump decided to suddenly revoke his commitment towards trade talks and imposed the pending 25% tariff on $300 billion worth of Chinese imports, he did it, humiliatingly, when the Chinese representative was still in the middle of the talks with the Americans. Yet, China did not lose poise and responded evenly in kind much later.

Unfortunately, even as the ‘Western family’ stands united with regard to China, the ‘East’ is a divided house. The US by striking a chord through the joint partnership of India, Japan and Australia has successfully entered the troubled waters of Indo-Pacific to settle scores with China. India being a prime and powerful country in the Indian Ocean Region is the natural centre-point of US interventions, which had begun during Obama’s time and continued under Trump. The US is seeking to replicate its intricate relationship with Japan with India this time, with help from Japan, Australia and South Korea. Europe does the same thing.

All this is being done to ‘contain’ China. And the Azhar episode is nothing but a small event in these unfolding changes. Even as China stares at bleak prospects in the West, it is seeking to keep a united house in Asia and Eurasia and is hence deepening ties with not only India, but also its traditional rival, Japan, and Russia. The BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) forms an important material part of these interrelationships.

The strengthening revival of terrorism in the region – this time, with terrorists openly calling out China, unlike the relief China managed between 1997 and 2012 – and the dangerous forays by US with India, has made the Azhar issue the first easy obstruction to be dispensed with. Thus, it is not that the US is a great friend of India and, therefore, decided to box China into a corner at the UN Security Council to compel the latter on the Azhar issue through various threats. Neither is it that China was cowed down by the threat of US, France and UK threatening to further publicly condemn China unless it sanctioned Azhar – since China has already been so much vilified and misjudged that compared to that, mere accusations over Azhar would pale.

Rather, given the factors discussed above, China’s decision to finally sanction Azhar showed that the time was right and that relationship with India was at a stage where things had to be taken forward, instead of allowing to lapse. Thus, China sanctioned Azhar simply because it was India’s demand and not because of the Western pressure.

The Indian Attitude

However, as usual, Indians have not grasped this. In keeping with their suspicious attitude towards China, undue and excessive credit is being given to the role played by US and France in bringing China around. This is despite the fact that China is waging much bigger battles with these powers than the much smaller Azhar issue – in these battles, it has borne the brunt of being accused of theft, cheating, indebting countries and violating humans rights of Uighurs besides supporting Pakistan, North Korea and Iran. When it has not cowed down in the face of these accusations, it is highly unlikely that diplomatic pressure over Masood Azhar would have ‘pressurized’ China to change its view. China did this for India and the Indian government alone recognizes this, as is evident through the positive attitude of the Indian government.

The attitude of the Indian government has remained positive towards China since after the Wuhan summit and continued to be so despite repeated refusals by China to sanction the terrorist. Regardless of whether the Indian popular opinion grasps it or not, the government fully realizes the value of India’s relationship with China.

The natural compatibility in the India-China relationship – not hinging on a mercantile give and take – is unlike the India-US relationship. Last year, in the run up to India signing the COMCASA agreement with the US on secure information sharing, the preceding months were fraught with tension, as India, till the last minute continued to doubt the US’s intentions.  Besides this, the US has kept up pressure on India to cut itself off from Iran and Russia, besides taunting India on not doing much in Afghanistan and on keeping high tariffs. Multiple times, unlike China, the US has also dragged India to the WTO dispute settlement mechanism to subvert India’s trading restrictions that seek to protect domestic industries in solar cells and other areas.

For all practical purposes, the India-US alliance has always been and continues to look unnatural and fraught with tensions. The US expects a give and take on every issue. Right after Azhar was successfully sanctioned, the US sent a message to India to indicate that it now expects India’s reciprocity in defeating Iran, thereby putting India in a precarious position, threatening its ties with a neighbour with whom India has shared centuries of common history and cultural exchange and one that continues to be India’s basis for practical dealing with Pakistan and Afghanistan. But the US does not care. For the latter, it has always been transactional and mercantile.

India has rarely had to face such situations with partners like China, Russia and Iran. Most recently, after PM Modi won the most resounding victory for the second term, China was among the first countries to send its congratulatory message. This was a first for China as well, since as per the conventional Chinese protocol, China wishes the newly elected heads from other nations only after the results have been fully declared. Yet, in this Indian election, China’s message came early on. It was also not a short message, but a proper letter on fostering cooperation between the two countries.

This is a message that China has repeatedly emphasized in the past as well, even going as far as calling the Doklam stand-off of 2017 a conflict between “brothers” and a minor episode in “2000-year-old family” ties. As the Chinese ambassador to India has also emphasized, “China and India should also join hands to build an Asian Century, a new type of international relations and a community with shared future for mankind to embrace various booming civilizations.” (Zhaohui, 2019).

And yet, we continue to doubt China, even as the West has started playing the game of civilizational competition with China and deploys the policy of divide-and-rule in Asia.

Bibliography

Jaffrey, S. (2015, August 12). BBC. Retrieved from BBC: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-33775646

Zhaohui, L. (2019, May 24). Times of India. Retrieved from https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/voices/china-india-yes-to-civilisation-exchanges-no-to-trade-bullying/

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