After years of resistance to listing Masood Azhar, founder of Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed, as a global terrorist, China has finally changed it position. Earlier, the attempts to add Azhar to the United Nations blacklist, under the 1267 Committee, failed as China had put a hold on the process, saying the issue should be resolved through consultations. After the February 14 Pulwama attack, which killed at least 40 Indian security personnel, France, the U.K. and the U.S. had cosponsored a new listing application, which was also blocked by China. However, when its hold expired, China raised no fresh opposition, which led to the listing of Azhar, which means there will be a travel ban, arms embargo on Azhar and his assets will be frozen.
The main reason for China’s opposition to Azhar’s terror designation was the Pakistan factor. Pakistan has robust economic and strategic ties with Beijing. China is also investing billions of dollars in Pakistan to build an ambitious economic corridor, connecting Kashgar in western China to Pakistan’s Gwadar, a port city on the Arabian Sea. So why did China change its position now despite the cooperation between the two countries remaining robust?
First, both India and China have manifested their desire to deepen bilateral ties despite the structural problems they face. Prime Minister Modi went to Wuhan in April last year for an informal summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping even when bilateral ties were not at their best. The shadows of the Doklam standoff between India-China armies and Beijing’s repeated hold on Azhar as well as its opposition to India’s Nuclear Suppliers Group membership continued to impinge of bilateral ties. Still India preferred to stay engaged with China as the Wuhan summit suggested. China had shown in recent past that it’s ready to do business with India even overlooking Pakistan’s sensitivities. Last year, China dropped its opposition to adding Pakistan to the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) grey list, which allowed the listing to go through smoothly.
The U.S. factor
Second, the Azhar issue has cast shadows on China’s commitment to fighting terrorism. Jaish, the organisation Azhar leads, has been an internationally designated terrorist outfit. And Jaish’s role in multiple terrorist attacks in India has been well established. China’s continued hold on Azhar’s listing had weakened internationally its position against terror. After all, China has its own terror problem. The “deradicalisation” camps it’s running in Xinjiang has triggered international criticisms, particularly from the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo slammed China’s “shameful hypocrisy”, saying it’s abusing over a million Muslims at home while protecting “violent Islamic terrorist groups from sanctions at the UN”. After it used its hold on Azhar following the Pulwama attack, the U.S. had distributed a draft resolution at the UN Security Council (outside the 1267 Committee) to ban Azhar. If the resolution is put to vote, China would be left with an awkward choice — either to back it or use its precious veto power, further isolating itself among global peers. This appeared to have put China in a fix.
No Pulwama reference
Third, it didn’t have to completely abandon Pakistan, its “all weather friend”. The original listing application which France, the U.K., and the U.S. had moved had a reference to the Pulwama attack, as reported by The Hindu. But that reference was removed from the application that went through on Wednesday, apparently at China’s insistence. This is in line with Pakistan’s Kashmir narrative that terror activities in the valley are an indigenous uprising, and not controlled by any foreign player. The official listing talks about Azhar’s ties with Jaish and al-Qaeda, but it has no reference to his role in Kashmir violence. This was the compromise that India (or its allies at the UNSC) had to make to get Azhar listed on the terror list. It allowed India to clinch a diplomatic victory, while China can say it changed its position not under any pressure but based on the “revised” listing request, and Pakistan can claim that the listing went through after “all the political references” were removed.
While responding to the listing, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has batted for international community’s support for Pakistan, emphasising its view on Islamabad. “I would like to stress that Pakistan has made enormous contributions to fighting terrorism, which deserves the full support of the international community. China will continue to firmly support Pakistan’s efforts to combat terrorist and extremist forces,” said Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang.