The Director-General of Pakistan Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) wing held an unusually long press conference two days ago. He rambled on much to the annoyance of many journalists and media persons. Major-General Asif Ghafoor, DG-ISPR needs to be ready for one more such interaction because soon enough India’s bête noir and Pakistan’s darling, Masood Azhar, founder and leader of the radical terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) is likely to be declared an international terrorist by the United Nations.
It was China’s endorsement that was missing and preventing the UN Security Council (UNSC) from going ahead with what the international community must do when an internationally well-identified terrorist group and its leader continue to act with impunity. Azhar was responsible for the suicide attack at Pulwama that left 40 members of Indian CRPF personnel dead on 14 February, sparking off a series of events that almost brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war.
On 13 March, 2019 led by France and the UK, the US too re-initiated the process to designate Azhar; the move has been blocked four times in the past 10 years at China’s instance, thus giving the JeM a certain indemnity that it has been exploiting at will. This time too China again placed a technical hold on the issue pending further clarification. Circumstances since that date may have changed marginally but some aggressive diplomacy on the part of India does appear to be making a difference. How will the combination of prevailing circumstances and plain-speaking diplomacy convert a frustrating situation for India into something more meaningful in the fight against trans-national terrorism?
The importance of this analysis should be gauged from the fact that at least two major acts of terror (Uri and Pulwama) emanating from Pakistan in the past three years have forced doubtful credibility about its claims of not having any linkages with sponsored terror in Kashmir. The admission of the presence of Azhar by Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Quereshi and the subsequent denial of the same by the DG-ISPR fly in the face of Pakistan’s claims and give the international community enough reason to pursue the case in the UNSC. China will be wary of its own credibility.
First, the circumstances that allowed it to pursue the denial of sanctions in the UNSC in the past few years appear have undergone considerable change. China is under pressure from the US on trade issues like never before and there have been situations in the recent past when it has quietly sought India’s cooperation in this regard. Second, the Wuhan spirit that has driven Sino-Indian cooperation over the past year (after the Doka La standoff of 2017) or so is yielding a situation as much advantageous to China as it is to India. Not for nothing did Global Times publish a piece preceding the Indian foreign secretary’s recent visit to Beijing, outlining the need for India to draw away from politico-military ties with the US, which in Chinese perception has somewhat altered India’s foreign policy.
Blindly supporting Pakistan on an indefensible issue in the face of mounting evidence that Pakistan wishes away is not the way China would want to leverage advantage of the Wuhan spirit. It perceives that spirit as central to keeping India in dilemma on how far to go in its strategic partnership with the US and how much to display in optics such as Exercise Malabar. In mid-March 2019 when China decided to withhold support in the UNSC and sought greater clarification, it was essentially playing for time to reassess the military situation in the subcontinent.
Moving away from its traditional support to Pakistan would have weakened Pakistan’s position substantially and perhaps encouraged a more aggressive stance from India; this would obviously not have been advantageous to China in any way. Given Pakistan’s precarious economic situation, it would also have been a body blow to its credibility in the pursuit of bailouts it sought. Six weeks later, China has possibly consulted enough and realised that there was no longer any strategic advantage to support a renegade terrorist and his organisation on a world platform.
Although the suicide bombings in Sri Lanka are just a recent phenomenon, they have had an international impact. The world is concerned about the ability of the Islamic State (IS) to continue being effective after its military defeat. The happenings in Sri Lanka could be the tip of the iceberg with much more to follow; international intelligence does not have the capacity to comprehensively monitor the globe.
China has its own problem of unrest and homegrown terror that has all the potential of being exploited. After all, a very large number of frontline fighters of the IS were Uighurs from China’s restive Xinjiang region. At some time, China and India could look towards cooperation in this regard, after all, India manages one of the world’s largest minority Muslim populations with a degree of aplomb. For China to support Azhar for the sake of its strategic loyalty to Pakistan is a misplaced idea.
What we need to be clear about is that China’s acquiescence to accepting the labeling of Azhar will in no way dilute its strategic support to Pakistan. Besides the historical aspect of the support it has extended to Pakistan, the current geopolitical environment existing in the crucial belt from South to Central Asia (the traditional New Great Game zone) makes Pakistan a very significant State. India’s continued absence at the Belt and Road Forum (BRF) makes China wary, but in many ways it is the consistency of India’s stand that also keeps it under pressure.
How far will the potential new label on Azhar and JeM impact the world view on Pakistan?
This is not about a black and white perception. While important nations condemn international terror and are largely aware of the role of Pakistan in sponsoring terror in Jammu and Kashmir, and elsewhere in India, they will continue to play their cards close to the chest. That is because two major reasons continue to make Pakistan a strategically important State for the world.
The first is the role it plays and will continue to play in Afghanistan, especially with the relationship it enjoys with the Taliban. The second relates to the nuclear weapons it possesses and of which the world is always suspicious. Unless something more definitive emerges in Afghanistan, not much may change in terms of attitude. However, India can expect more pressure on Pakistan at the Financial Assistance Task Force (FATF) deliberations; extraction of greater assurances and some demonstrated action against the India-focused terror groups could be an outcome it could seek.
The hype built around the entire issue of labelling of Azhar an international terrorist may probably have a greater internal impact in India than externally. Potentially, it would give a fillip to the Narendra Modi government in the remaining phases of the Lok Sabha election. However, the external impact could depend on the manner in which the international security environment pans out in the next couple of months.
It will, however, impose greater caution on Pakistan to take meaningful control of the wayward groups that could force a bitter standoff between India and Pakistan, which is completely detrimental to mutual interests. The ability to remain in credible denial is fasting diluting; at least that is where China’s labelling of Azhar will make a difference in the future.