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Above: A meeting of the United Nations Security Council/ UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

China’s reluctance to declare the JeM chief Masood Azhar a global terrorist is evidence of its symbiotic ties with Pakistan. It will protect it to keep a check on India’s influence in the region

By Colonel R Hariharan

Are we missing the wood for the trees by focusing on China putting a “technical hold” on the listing of Masood Azhar, chief of Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), as an international terrorist under the UN sanctions regime? It would seem so because China’s response was not unexpected; it had been taking the same stance for the last decade. And it is Pakistan, not China, who is the main villain of the piece. India’s relentless campaign to get the UN Security Council (UNSC) to list Azhar as a global terrorist is not the whole, but part, of its efforts to internationally isolate Pakistan.

The fact that 14 members of the UNSC supported listing the JeM leader against China’s lone negative vote speaks for the success of India’s campaign against Pakistan for sponsoring and supporting trans-border terrorist operations against India.

The proposal to designate Azhar under the 1267 Al Qaida Sanctions Committee of the UNSC was moved by France, the UK and the US on February 27, nearly two weeks after a JeM-inspired suicide car bomb attack on a CRPF convoy killed 40 people in Pulwama in J&K. The committee members had 10 working days to raise any objection to the proposal.

China had put a “technical hold” on the proposal, seeking “more time to examine” it. It said the move would give it time for a “thorough and in-depth assessment” of the case and help the parties concerned to engage in more talks to find a “lasting solution” acceptable to all. China’s explanation would have been laughable, except for the grim fact that it enables Pakistan to delay concrete action to dismantle terror groups operating from its soil against India.

The anger against China after it blocked the UNSC move was palpable on Indian social media. People could not understand what was “technical” about recognising Azhar as a global terrorist. There were calls for boycott of Chinese goods, though they have become indispensable to trade and commerce and to the growth of mobile communication and the power industry in the country.

The public outrage against China is understandable as the grim sequel to the Pulwama attack took India and Pakistan to the brink of war. India had responded to the attack with an air strike on a JeM training centre at Balakot in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in Pakistan. The Pakistan Air Force’s counter-strike in J&K two days later and the capture of an Indian fighter pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, in Pakistan turned the situation ugly.

Further deterioration of the situation was averted when the US, China, Saudi Arabia and UAE intervened and claimed credit for defusing the situation after Pakistan released the Indian pilot. But the security situation along the India-Pakistan border and LoC in J&K continues to be anomalous. Pakistan continues to fire across the border while Indian troops are carrying out operations to eliminate terrorists and security agencies are uncovering and dismantling sources of supply and finance of Pakistan-inspired terrorist support networks within the state.

High public expectations on l’affaire Azhar have to be understood in the context of events that preceded it. India had been regularly briefing foreign diplomats about the situation leading up to the UNSC meeting. It gave a detailed dossier on Azhar and JeM involvement in terrorist activity to the members, including China. The media gave a huge build-up before the UNSC met to consider the listing of Azhar.

Unfortunately, the “friend or foe” binary vision of the visual and social media in the country got very shrill in the events leading up to the UNSC meeting. As the Indo-Pak confrontation happened close to the general election, it inevitably led to a lot of chest-thumping of the ruling party, countered equally and vehemently by the Opposition. Cumulatively, these developments influenced their understanding of China’s stand on the Azhar issue. People expected China to be more sensitive to India’s concerns about terrorism as their hopes were kindled after Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Wuhan unofficial summit last year.

In this context, the statement of Liu Zongyi, senior fellow at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, quoted in the Communist Party of China’s tabloid, Global Times, is interesting. He said the question of whether to list Azhar as a global terrorist has been a long-lasting dispute between China and India. In 2017, New Delhi’s demand was partly behind the Doklam stand-off. “If New Delhi succeeds in having both JeM and its leader black-listed, Islamabad would be branded a state sponsor of terrorism and isolated on the international stage. This is what India wants to pursue till the end,” he added.

International columnist Fareed Zakaria’s quote that “foreign policy is a matter of costs and benefits, not theology” applies to China’s negative stand on Azhar. It has shown that China’s approach to India will be transactional, selective and based on the hard reality of its national self-interest rather than ephemeral notions of harmony and bonhomie. China-Pakistan relations are built upon what Chanakya said long ago: “There is some self-interest behind every friendship. There is no friendship without self-interest. This is a bitter truth.”

Pakistan is increasingly becoming dependent on China—strategically, economically, politically, diplomatically and militarily. China will continue to use Pakistan’s vulnerability to protect and pamper it, not merely because it is its long-term friend and strategic ally in South Asia. It suits China that Pakistan firmly keeps a check on India’s strategic strength and influence in the region. Pakistan enlarges China’s options in handling India, its potential challenger in the region and beyond.

Moreover, China is under pressure to make a success of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in which it has invested over $40 billion to showcase the Belt and Road Initiative which has come under heavy weather. CPEC’s infrastructure would enable China to flex its strategic naval power to secure its interests in the Indian Ocean Region and South Asia, which had been dominated by India’s naval power.

Diplomat Gautam Bambawale, who served as India’s ambassador to both Islamabad and Beijing, while addressing the Indian Association of Foreign Affairs Correspondents, recently put the Wuhan meeting in perspective. He said he was averse to the term “Wuhan reset” as some people have described the informal summit. He said both India and China “saw what happened at Doklam, analysed that particular experience and drew their own conclusions from it”. Then they independently came to the decision that it was “much more important to have a relatively harmonious and balanced relationship between the two most populous states on the globe”.

He cautioned that “if the word (Wuhan) ‘reset’ in any way implies that the tensions and ill temperedness of Doklam was being brushed aside or under the carpet, then I strongly object to this term”. He added that he would go along with the use of the term “reset” if it described “a cool reappraisal of the relationship and a desire to put it on an even keel”.

On the Azhar episode, the diplomat was of the opinion that India must have a transactional approach to the issue. “Perhaps China will permit the listing to move ahead if there is something we can do for them or offer them in return? If there is, a bargain can indeed be struck,” he added.

So it is not surprising that despite all the media hoopla over the Azhar episode, India’s take on the issue was realistic as the Ministry of External Affairs’ (MEA) carefully worded statement showed. The statement did not even name China, but merely expressed disappointment “by this outcome. This has prevented action by the international community to designate the leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed, a proscribed and active terrorist organization, which has claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack in Jammu and Kashmir on February 14, 2019”. However, one wishes the MEA had named China in the statement, at least to signal that India was not happy with its role.

China is here to stay as a powerful neighbour. It is in India’s interest to maintain a cordial working relationship with it, regardless of the hiccups in bilateral relations from time to time. Bambawale in his speech suggested an eight-point Pune Plan to build better relations with China.

These include maintaining high-level political relations, enhanced and expanded military exchanges between both countries, working to increase Chinese tourist visits to India through public-private partnership, focusing on attracting more Chinese students, creating a financial model for Chinese firms to modernise our railway stations, persuading it to join the International Solar Alliance as a member and expanding engagement with the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

However, some of these proposals might become politically controversial or inconvenient. But any foreign policy strategy to deal with China runs the risk of getting mired in political controversy.

After Modi took foreign policy initiatives to the political main stage with his signature showmanship, foreign policy has become one of the mainstream issues in the national political discourse. In a way, it has become a victim in the raucous election campaign, with rival political leaders making short shrift of nuanced policy initiatives to dispense their penny wisdom to the masses. Can political parties and leaders rise above petty politics to build a consensus on foreign policy?

American elder statesman Henry A Kissinger may well be speaking of India when he remarked that “our great foreign policy problem is our divisions at home. Our greatest foreign policy need is national cohesion and a return to the awareness that in foreign policy, we are all engaged in a common national endeavour”.

Can our polity prove that Kissinger’s words do not apply to India?

—The writer is a military intelligence specialist on South Asia, associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the International Law and Strategic Studies Institute

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