Masood Azhar: Chinese compulsion – The Sentinel


 

Joyjayanta Saharia

(The writer, a retired captain of Indian Navy, can be reached at jsaharia@rediffmail.com)

Masood Azhar – the mastermind of the Indian Parliament attack (2001), Mumbai attack (2008), Pathankot attack (2016) and the recent Pulwama attack (2019) – continues to receive the state patronage of Pakistan to wage war against India. He is the founder leader of the terrorist organization, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) operating from Pakistan. Despite knowing the notoriety and terror activities of Jaish-e-Mohammed and Masood Azhar, China’s continued opposition to UN Security Council’s resolution to designate Azhar as a global terrorist is bemusing, with many unanswered questions.

Before dwelling on various aspects and angles to understand ‘the seemingly compulsive Chinese stand’, it would be appropriate to get the background and chronicle of events.

Born in 1968 in the Pakistani province of Punjab, Masood Azhar dropped out of the mainstream school after 8th standard and joined the Jamia Uloom Islamic school from where he graduated in 1989. Azhar had a strong Deobandi leaning from the beginning and was soon appointed as teacher in that school. A number of students of the school at that time were under the influence of Harkat-ul-Ansar leaders. Azhar was also influenced and enrolled for a jihad-training camp in Afghanistan.

Masood Azhar participated in the Soviet Afghan war where he was injured. Thereafter, he joined as the head of Harkat’s motivation wing. In 1989, at the end of the Soviet-Afghan war, the group with assistance and directions of the ISI joined Kashmiri militancy under the leadership of Sajjad Afghani and Muzaffar Ahmad Baba (alias Mukhtar). In early 1994, Masood Azhar travelled to Srinagar under a fake identity, to ease tensions between two feuding factions of Harkat-ul-Ansar (Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami and Harkat-ul-Mujahideen). He was eventually arrested by the Indian security forces. By that time three key leaders of Harkat-ul-Ansar was under the custody of Indian security forces (Nasrullah Mansur Langaryal, Massod Azhar and Sajjad Afghani).

The group resorted to several kidnappings to free their leaders, which failed. In December 1999, the Indian Airlines Flight (IC 814) from Kathmandu to New Delhi was hijacked and forced to land in Kandahar, Afghanistan which, at that time, was under the control of the Taliban. Masood Azhar was one of the three militants demanded to be released in exchange for freeing the hostages. Masood Azhar was freed by the Indian government, a decision criticized by many as a diplomatic failure.
Shortly after his release, Azhar made a public address to an estimated 10,000 people in Karachi vowing to destroy India and liberate Kashmir from Indian rule. In 1999 the United States designated Harkat-ul-Ansar as a terrorist organization; in response to that the group renamed itself to Harkat-ul-Mujahideen.

In 2000, Azhar, again with the assistance of the ISI, formed his own group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), a terrorist group with strong jehadi ideology. Besides the ISI, the group also received assistance from the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

While, international terror and Pakistan-sponsored anti-India terror activities were growing with each passing year, the global economy and commerce, which apparently seemed delinked from these issues, invisibly got interlaced. The failed Soviet expedition to Afghanistan not only broke their dream of having a warm water port in that region, it also left countless well trained Mujaheeds armed to the teeth to be exploited later by the ISI. The 9/11 terrorist attack on the United States followed by the prolonged anti-terror operation in Pak-Afghanistan region substantially strained the economy of the Allied Forces, including the United States. The global financial meltdown in 2008 complicated this further. Pakistan’s half-hearted participation in the anti-terror operations despite generous financial aids and eventual discovery of Osama-bin-Laden on Pakistani soil forced the United States to have a relook into its policies on Pakistan. Pakistan got cornered in front of the International community and was virtually left to itself with a debt-ridden cash-starved economy. In its pursuit of salvage, China slowly became a major player in Pakistan’s fate and future.

Chinese planners saw Pakistan’s helplessness and also saw a commercial and strategic advantage. China has been looking for an alternative to its important shipping lanes in the South China Sea (through Malacca Strait), including those in the Yellow Sea and in the Sea of Japan, which would be inaccessible to China at the time of hostilities. Pakistan’s deep sea port of Gwadar strategically located at the mouth of Hormuz Strait offered this strategic alternative. The Chinese soon invested billions of dollars in this region. Gwadar port has been redesigned on Chinese investment with a Thermal Power Plant in the vicinity. Iranian and Caspian Sea oil is planned to be brought to China by land routes through Pakistan. China’s energy needs would thus be met through Pakistan’s land route bypassing the Strait of Malacca. In 2015 Pakistan and China signed a 46-billion dollar agreement to build super highways, railways and pipelines from Gwadar to the Chinese province of Xingjiang covering a distance of more than 3,000 km. This is known as China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which will give the Chinese an access to the Indian Ocean, most importantly to Africa. Till 2006 Africa’s three biggest trading partners were America, China and France. At present, it is China on the top followed by India and America.

Further, there are strong military ties between China and Pakistan, which is primarily aimed to counter Indian and American influence (dominance). Growing military exports to Pakistan is a significant portion of the Chinese economy. China and Pakistan are also involved in several projects to enhance military collaboration. This include the joint development of the JF-17 fighter aircraft, K-8 Karakorum advance training aircraft, Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) and license production of Chinese T-90 (Al-Khalid) tanks. In addition, the strategically located Pakistan’s Gwadar sea port would be a suitable launch-pad for the Chinese Navy, giving them the flexibility and ability to deploy submarines and warships in the Indian Ocean.

Coming back to the issue of branding Masood Azhar as a global terrorist by the UN Security Council, the Chinese are aware that terror and extremism are intrinsic to Pakistan’s state policy and are part of their socio-politico-terror equilibrium. The Chinese will not, therefore, stir up a hornet’s nest disregarding the economic and strategic advantage they would accrue by partnering with Pakistan. Besides, the Chinese have already invested and committed billions of dollars in that country. Therefore, for Beijing, the priority and policies are fairly simple; growth and economic development gets a place much ahead of international peace and harmony. Masood Azhar is, therefore, not worth the risk in their decision-making matrix. Further, a burning Kashmir and a volatile North-Western frontier of India would also give a sense of comfort to the Chinese. The veto on designating Masood Azar as a global terrorist is a compulsive stand of the Chinese, rather than a successful Pakistani diplomatic move, even if it amounts to an irresponsible conduct and embarrassment to the Chinese in the international forum. However, with the international pressure now mounting on the Chinese, it will be interesting to see the Chinese response.



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