Why is Masood Azhar so important to China?

China was the only country among the 15-member UNSC to have opposed the ban on Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar


A file photo of Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Maulana Masood Azhar. Photo: AP
A file photo of Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Maulana Masood Azhar. Photo: AP

New Delhi: This year, China has twice blocked India’s bid to get Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar declared as a UN-designated terrorist. The first instance was in April and the second earlier this month.

India holds Azhar responsible for many terrorist acts in India including the 13 December 2001 attack on India’s parliament as well the 2 January 2016 attack on the Pathankot airbase. On the record, Beijing says it stands against all forms of terrorism, but it has refused to end its “technical hold” on the ban on Azhar. According to news reports, China was the only country among the 15-member UN Security Council (UNSC) to oppose the ban on Azhar, with countries such as Saudi Arabia backing India.

Replying to a question on criticism about China’s move to stall India’s bid for a UN ban on Azhar, China’s vice foreign minister Li Baodong last week sought to justify Beijing’s position. In a veiled reference to India, which is pressing for the UN ban against Azhar over his role in the Pathankot terror attack, he said:

“China is opposed to all forms of terrorism. There should be no double standards on counter-terrorism. Nor should one pursue own political gains in the name of counter-terrorism.”

So, why is China supporting Mazood Azhar and why is he so important to China?

There are several possible explanations.

One, given that China and Pakistan are “all-weather friends” Beijing’s efforts are aimed at keeping its ally in South Asia happy. India is seen as a competitor and sometimes even a threat by China and needling India in this way keeps India “boxed in” by problems in South Asia, leaving it with little leeway to focus on issues away from its immediate neighbourhood. Any breakthrough in South Asia in terms of peace with Pakistan or penalising Pakistan with support from other countries would mean India being relatively free to concentrate further afield. Officially though, China says that its veto on Azhar “will allow more time for the committee to deliberate on the matter and for relevant parties to have further consultations” given the different views among UN Security Council members on the matter.

Pakistan’s support for China within groupings like the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and others like the Non-Aligned Movement where China has no representation could be another reason for Beijing extending support to Pakistan through the UNSC, where it is a powerful veto-wielding member. In the past, Pakistan has reportedly shielded China in the OIC against caustic remarks on Beijing’s crackdowns on its Muslim Uyghur community in its restive Xinjiang province. Islamabad has also stood up against any inclusion of sharp language against Beijing at the Non Aligned Movement’s meetings on its conduct in the South China Sea. Beijing claims almost all of the South China Sea, disputing claims by countries like the Philippines and Vietnam.

A third reason could be India’s growing proximity to the US that China definitely sees as a major challenge. India’s warming relations with the US in the past decade, the high water mark of which was the 2008 civil nuclear deal, has been variously debated and discussed as moves by the US to find a counterweight to China in Asia. These moves have fuelled Chinese suspicions and needling India using Masood Azhar could be one way of keeping India on tenterhooks. In the past, China has also opposed India’s membership into the elite Nuclear Suppliers Group and the UN Security Council. According to analysts, it is also part of power politics – keeping power concentrated within the hands of a few and keeping others out.

Another reason could be China’s pique with India for sheltering the Dalai Lama who Beijing considers a “subversive” and a “splittist.” The Dalai Lama is the temporal head of Tibetan Buddhists. He was made head of state at age 15 in 1950, the same year that Chinese troops occupied Tibet. In 1959, the Dalai Lama fled Tibet for exile in India after a failed uprising against Chinese rule. That New Delhi has given the Tibetan spiritual leader asylum is a sore point vis-a-vis Beijing. “For the Chinese, the Dalai Lama is sort of the equivalent of (Lashkar e Toiba terrorist group leader) Hafeez Saeed for India,” remarked an Indian diplomat who was posted in Beijing recently.

Last but not the least is the key role played by Pakistan in China’s One Belt One Road plans. China has pledged $51 billion in projects and investments in an economic corridor that literally runs across the length of Pakistan – connecting China’s Xinjiang region to the Arabian Sea port of Gwadar. The port is important for China which sees it as an alternative to sea routes from Africa and West Asia through the South China Sea. The project is projected as bringing development to some of Pakistan’s most backward regions like Baluchistan where Islamabad has been trying to quell an insurgency for decades.

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