A combination of international pressure, threat to its national reputation, and transactional diplomacy forced China to lift its technical hold on the designation of Masood Azhar, the chief of Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), as a "global terrorist" by the United Nations (UN). But, this diplomatic victory for India might not significantly alter the way India has to fight terrorism emanating from Pakistan.
Azhar's listing as a global terrorist by the UN on Wednesday came after China lifted its hold on the proposal to blacklist him — a significant U-turn given the stance Beijing had maintained for close to a decade. India, which had been pushing for Azhar's blacklisting as a "global terrorist" since the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, had faced a Chinese veto every time. Beijing blocked New Delhi's efforts in 2009, 2016, 2017, and also in March this year.
Azhar has been branded as the brain behind various suicide attacks in India and the terrorist group JeM, which he founded in 2000, has claimed responsibility for several audacious attacks, including the 2001 Parliament attack and the recent Pulwama suicide bomb attack. The UNSC designation will subject Azhar to an asset freeze, travel ban and an arms embargo.
China, which considers Pakistan a major strategic partner, has enthusiastically batted for it in the international arena except in a few instances. So, what has changed Beijing's mind this time around?
A public relations nightmare
After the February 14 Pulwama attack, France, the UK and the US moved a fresh proposal to designate Azhar under the 1267 Al Qaeda Sanctions Committee of the UN Security Council (UNSC). China, once again, blocked the move by placing a technical hold on the proposal. Subsequently, the US, with the support of the UK and France, moved directly to the UNSC to blacklist Azhar. Beijing had opposed this move and said that the issue of Azhar's listing should be resolved at the 1267 Committee itself.
Reports also emerged that the US, UK and France had fixed April 23 as the deadline for China to lift its hold in the 1267 Committee, failing which they would press for a discussion on the issue at the UNSC itself. China, for its part, denied the existence of any such deadline.
Such discussions at the UNSC would have led to a public vote, where China, which had blocked Azhar's listing four times, would have found itself in a sticky spot defending its stance publicly — and also defending a terrorist by extension.
An unnamed source aware of the developments explained China's situation to the Indian Express thus: "... And for China to publicly defend an individual terrorist would have meant public censure. It would have been broadcast live." Citing sources, the Express report also said that Beijing felt that a public discussion on the matter would be best avoided, since "it came with too high a PR cost".
Ultimately, China decided to lift its hold after considering the "reputational cost".
Intense international pressure
The proposal to list Azhar had the full backing of all UNSC members except China. Outside the UNSC, several other countries like Australia, Japan and Canada were also in favour of the JeM chief's blacklisting, according to the Express report.
Towards the beginning of April, the US had reportedly said that it would use "all available resources" to designate the JeM chief as a global terrorist. Writing for The Economic Times, Vinay Kaura, assistant professor at the Department of International Affairs and Security Studies at the Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice, had said "it had become untenable for China to continuously withstand growing international pressure not to blindly support Azhar".
India's Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Syed Akbaruddin, told the Indian Express, "there was a broad global coalition", and not just India that was in favour of listing Azhar (as a global terrorist). According to Akbaruddin, many other countries from "Africa to Europe, US to Australia, and Japan to Canada" were all supporting the move.
India's stand on BRI played a role
Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale had visited Beijing ahead of the Belt and Road Forum, which would start from April 25.
Describing the visit as "spur-of-the-moment", the Times of India had reported that it had raised questions about whether New Delhi was negotiating with Beijing about Azhar's listing. Back then, the report had pointed out that one key aspect in any such negotiation could be whether China would insist on India's "low-level participation" at least at the One Belt One Road (OBOR) forum.
According to the Indian Express, China had placed a pre-condition for lifting its hold: India should support OBOR. New Delhi had boycotted the first Belt and Road Forum (BRF) in 2017 after protesting to Beijing over the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which was being laid through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. New Delhi maintains that CPEC violates India's territorial sovereignty and integrity.
The Express report added that India agreed it would not issue a statement on the Belt and Road Initiative, unlike in the past. However, New Delhi also underlined that it had not changed its position on OBOR and CPEC. China, according to the report, felt that this was a "good deal" as the Belt and Road Forum approached on April 25.
Breakthrough may do little to curb Pak-based terror
Azhar's listing is a diplomatic victory for India, but it might not do much to stem terrorism emanating from Pakistan and groups based there. The UN has also listed Lashkar-e-Taiba's Hafiz Saeed, Zaki Ur Rahman Lakhvi and Abdur Rahman, along with underworld don Dawood Ibrahim, as terrorists. But, by itself, the designation has done little to put an end to their activities and attacks against India.
After Azhar's listing, strategic affairs expert Brahma Chellaney said that Pakistan's proxy war through terrorism "can be contained only through Indian military pressure and non-military penal actions".
"What has India gained? It lost a propaganda lever against China only to gain a new gizmo to shine a spotlight on Pakistan’s close nexus with terrorists. Pakistan's proxy war by terror, however, can be contained only through Indian military pressure and non-military penal actions," said Chellaney.
It would have suited India had China continued to expose itself by blocking UN sanctions against Pakistan-based terrorist leader Masood Azhar. By finally ending its decade-long obstruction, China gets rid of an embarrassing issue that became a diplomatic albatross round its neck.— Brahma Chellaney (@Chellaney) 2 May 2019
What has India gained? It lost a propaganda lever against China only to gain a new gizmo to shine a spotlight on Pakistan’s close nexus with terrorists. Pakistan's proxy war by terror, however, can be contained only through Indian military pressure and non-military penal actions.— Brahma Chellaney (@Chellaney) 2 May 2019