At the recently held BRICS summit in Xiamen, China, a 43-page declaration was issued. Referring to terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, the members expressed concern about the security situation and also named Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad - among others - in the declaration. This was seen as a concession to India. This came closely after the resolution of the Doklam standoff between Indian and Chinese armies. So, how important is this inclusion? Does it signify China agreeing to India's viewpoint on terrorism that emanates from the Pakistani soil? The author analyses the importance of this event.
Tucked away in the middle of a 43-page declaration issued by the BRICS
countries at their annual summit held in Xiamen last week were 43 words of some consequence. In reference to continued terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, the declaration stated, “We, in this regard, express concern on the security situation in the region and violence caused by the Taliban, ISIL/DAISH, Al-Qaida and its affiliates including Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, TTP and Hizb ut-Tahrir.”
Coming on the heels of the Doklam crisis—the resolution of which produced much triumphalism among the Indian commentariat—this article of the Xiamen Declaration was hailed as a “major diplomatic victory” by Indian media
. The victory seemed greater still in light of India’s failure to have Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad mentioned in the BRICS Goa Declaration of 2016, as well as China’s deliberate and repeated blocking of Jaish head Masood Azhar from being added to the United Nations Security Council Sanctions List (most recently when the list was revised last month). A senior official of India’s Ministry of External Affairs said in a press conference
following the Xiamen summit that “for the first time…there has been such a specific listing of terrorist organizations,” as well as agreement that “BRICS
countries should work together in facilitating listing of these [organizations] under the UNSC.”
This statement is incorrect on two counts. First, this is not the first time that a BRICS
declaration has specifically listed terrorist organizations. In addition to naming Al-Qaeda and ISIL/Daesh, recent annual declarations have also mentioned Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Shabaab, and Boko Haram. The difference this time is the context, i.e. Afghanistan, which most commentary has overlooked. Second, the organizations listed in the BRICS
declaration are already included in the UNSC Sanctions List. If the MEA’s intention was to refer to Masood Azhar, then it bears emphasizing that there was no public agreement at Xiamen on whether Beijing would withhold its veto at the UNSC.
On all other fronts, the BRICS
declaration was unexceptional. Many have mentioned its length as a distinguishing feature, though the 2015 Ufa Declaration was much longer. In terms of overall focus, the declaration was not very different from past iterations. Terrorism
has been an important subject in BRICS
declarations ever since the first summit at Ekaterinberg in 2009. Indeed, the focus on terrorism
in successive declarations has increased, with ever more specific references to conflicts and organizations in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan. The Xiamen Declaration thus fits a longer-term trend in concern among BRICS
countries over the global and transnational spread of terrorism.
In the context of South Asian security, however, the question still remains: Why did China
agree to the inclusion of Lashkar and Jaish in the Xiamen Declaration when doing so clearly risked its longstanding strategic partnership with Pakistan?
There are three possible answers. First and most straightforwardly, as suggested by Hu Shisheng
, director of the state-run China
Institute of Contemporary International Relations, Chinese diplomats in charge of the BRICS
file made a mistake. Specifically, this was not so much a result of oversight—BRICS
declarations are crafted through careful consultation between member countries—as poor judgment. This explanation still begs the question of what arguments or calculation of interests could have sufficiently compelled Chinese diplomats to accede.
A second possibility, raised in the Q&A
at the MEA press conference following the summit, is that India
was somehow able to extract a concession on the declaration as part of crisis bargaining over Doklam. This is perhaps the least plausible explanation, as the text for the declaration was likely negotiated for weeks prior to the summit. Moreover, as noted by the MEA, the negotiation involved five countries and not just India
There certainly exists a possible scenario in which India, in exchange for pulling back its troops from the Doklam plateau, demanded a concession from China
on terrorist groups based in Pakistan.
However, this formulation assumes that China
needed a peaceful resolution at Doklam more than India
did, which is far from the truth—in fact, both sides were eager to de-escalate and avoid conflict.
A third explanation is perhaps the most likely one. Afghanistan is an increasingly valuable link in the architecture of China’s Belt and Road Initiative
(BRI) in South and Central Asia. Terrorism and political instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan continue to pose major obstacles to the expanding presence of Chinese money and personnel in the region. It is telling that the list of organizations in the BRICS Declaration goes beyond Jaish and Lashkar to include other groups that pose a threat to Chinese investments in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia. India for its part has explicitly rejected
the BRI in its backyard, going so far as to boycott Beijing’s prized Belt and Road Forum in May 2017. The Doklam episode simply made explicit a latent truth about New Delhi, that it could potentially muster the resolve and resources to raise the cost to China
of implementing mega connectivity and infrastructure projects in South Asia and beyond. The BRICS
Declaration thus serves both as notice to Pakistan
and encouragement to India
with regard to the future of South Asia—especially Afghanistan—in the context of the BRI.
A consideration of China’s cost-benefit calculus in this context is instructive. The Declaration as it stands has temporarily alienated Pakistan, applied greater pressure on China
to yield on the Masood Azhar issue at the UNSC, and potentially jeopardized China’s ability to act as an impartial broker in Afghan reconstruction. Balanced against these risks are two longer-term interests in South Asia: securing investments and personnel connected to the BRI, and becoming a non-resident great power and public goods provider. By signing off on the declaration, Beijing has accepted some short-term pain for long-term gain. Indeed, it is not even clear that the short-term outcomes are altogether painful. After all, the Xiamen Declaration’s list of organizations overlaps significantly with that of the Heart of Asia conference’s Amritsar Declaration of 2016, which singled out “ISIL/Daesh and its affiliates, the Haqqani Network, Al Qaida, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, East Turkestan Islamic Movement, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, TTP, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, Jundullah and other foreign terrorist fighters” as major security threats in Afghanistan. China, Pakistan, and India
were all party to the latter declaration, which suggests either that the relevant clauses of both declarations are essentially cheap talk or that Pakistan’s rejection of the Xiamen Declaration is largely for the consumption of its domestic audience.
Nonetheless, Beijing has hastened to assure
its all-weather friend that there will be no change in its policy towards the latter’s role in global counter-terrorism.
This assurance is to be expected and highlights the underlying strategic calculus. Islamabad, under pressure from the Trump administration regarding its sponsorship of terrorism, needs Beijing more than ever (not to mention billions of dollars of CPEC investment). From China’s perspective, Pakistan
and Afghanistan will be vital for the BRI, while India
could be a major spoiler. The result is a minor diplomatic concession to India
without any real change in policy.
Faced with this situation, India
may yet have some diplomatic leverage in the fact that the most recent proposal at the UNSC in August 2017 to add Azhar to the sanctions list was brought by the US, UK, and France. China
may increasingly come under pressure not from India
but from other UNSC members to walk the talk on counter-terrorism, and Beijing may even relent on the Azhar file. It remains to be seen how Islamabad will be compensated in return.
Rohan Mukherjee is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Yale-NUS College
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.