NEW DELHI :
The thaw in India-China ties in Wuhan following the 2017 Doklam crisis notwithstanding, New Delhi has an uphill task in persuading Beijing to support its demand to declare Pakistan-based Maulana Masood Azhar a terrorist under United Nations (UN) norms.
Indian external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj will travel to Wuzhen in eastern China on Tuesday for the 16th Russia-India-China (RIC) meet on Wednesday. She is expected to meet Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov for bilateral talks, on the sidelines of the RIC conference. The proscription of Azhar, the head of the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), which claimed responsibility for the 14 February Pulwama attack, is expected to figure in the Swaraj-Wang talks.
China has blocked, at the behest of Pakistan, several attempts by India, France, the UK, and the US to sanction Azhar under UN Resolution 1267 for links to al-Qaeda.
China did condemn the 14 February Pulwama attack in which 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel were killed when a suicide bomber drove a vehicle laden with explosives into a bus they were travelling in. However, the Chinese foreign ministry did not mention the JeM, a UN-proscribed terrorist group, by name. Neither was there any reference to Pakistan, just a general call by Beijing to “regional countries (to) join hands together to confront the threat of terrorism so as to maintain regional peace and security".
When specifically asked if Beijing would work with India for the proscription of Azhar, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said in Beijing that China would handle the issue in a “constructive and responsible manner". A message from Wang Yi to Swaraj mirrored the foreign ministry statement, which made no reference to the JeM nor Pakistan while condemning terrorism in general. The Chinese ambassador to New Delhi Luo Zhaohui was reportedly non-committal on the question of banning Azhar during a meeting with Indian foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale.
On 22 February, however, China did join hands with other members of the UN Security Council to condemn the Pulwama attack. However, the fact that Beijing had worked hard to get the reference to JeM dropped, at the instance of Pakistan, did not go unnoticed in New Delhi. That Chinese diplomats also pressed hard to get a reference to “Indian administered Jammu and Kashmir"—a pointer to the dispute between India and Pakistan—included in the UN statement raised eyebrows in New Delhi.
Against this backdrop, Swaraj’s task to persuade China to help ban Azhar seems to be a difficult one.
“The basic Chinese position is unlikely to change given that China and Pakistan are all weather friends," said Srikanth Kondapalli, a professor of Chinese Studies at New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Kondapalli agreed that India and China have been trying to mend fences after their 73-day military standoff at Doklam in 2017 and the summit in Wuhan between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping had put ties back on track. The two countries had also expressed their “readiness to give the necessary direction to their militaries to enhance communications between them to maintain peace and tranquillity in the border areas".
Subsequently, there were military exercises between the two armies and three visits by key Chinese ministers, including the defence and foreign ministers. China also indicated willingness to reduce barriers to Indian exports, particularly in the agriculture sector.
All this indicated a forward movement in ties post Doklam. However, there was little to indicate that “China would do anything to embarrass Pakistan". “The Chinese military intelligence has an understanding with groups such as JeM not to support their Uighur (Muslim) population. As long as that happens, China will not act against groups like the JeM," Kondapalli said.
“China will only agree to proscribing Azhar if there is a cost or an incentive for them. At the UN, it was the only country to stand apart on the resolution, so they fell in line. At the Xiamen BRICS summit (in 2017), one of the reasons for naming the JeM in the list of terrorist outfits in the joint statement was the threat of India not making it to the summit," said Kondapalli.