Masood Azhar and China's 'new great game'

New Delhi, Delhi, India Mar 16, 2019, 12.01 PM(IST) Written By: Syed Ata Hasnain

File photo: Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photograph:( Reuters )

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What is China’s national interest which forces it to be out of sync with international sentiment and stand by its strategic partner, Pakistan at this juncture? 

No doubt a UN ban on Jaish-e-Muhammed (JeM) leader Masood Azhar and designating him an international terrorist would have been the culmination of an energetic diplomatic campaign that India undertook after the Pulwama outrage. However, the inability to achieve this must not be counted as a failure. In fact, it should be looked upon as a defining moment when China has been isolated in its singular obstinacy out of sync with the international sentiment. It should also be considered the moment to trigger urgency in internally resolving J&K to better effect and thereby discount any further strategic vulnerability.

China earlier blocked the same resolution in the UN Security Council three times and now a fourth time it has asked for it to be placed on hold awaiting more evidence. The sentiments of those three attempts were transactional, but this time it was different. The outrage over Pulwama and the early claims made by JeM in taking ownership for the car bomb attack have created a different flavour which could play strategically to India’s advantage. China has reportedly acted in pursuance of its national interest.

What is China’s national interest which forces it to be out of sync with international sentiment and stand by its strategic partner, Pakistan at this juncture? In fact, what is Sino-Pak joint interest in the prevention of the proscribing of a terrorist the world at large has condemned, including many Islamic countries? At earlier times the negative perception about the JeM leader was never as intense and Indian diplomacy too wasn’t energetic enough about carrying this through.

However, the prevailing international strategic environment is altering by the day and much is dependent upon the status of things in the crucial Af-Pak region. In reality, the status is utterly confused with the US threatening a full and final pullout of its 14,000 troops from Afghanistan without any clarity about which way post pull out Afghanistan will go and who will fill the strategic space being vacated.

While China is playing a limited role in this, it is clear that its national interests will be met through Pakistan emerging the nodal centre with full control over the Taliban and the future dispensation in Afghanistan. Its support to the resolution would have meant an international diplomatic defeat for Pakistan and thus a potential downscaling of its significance in the Afghanistan imbroglio.

No doubt China gives much importance to its investment in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and fears that Pakistan’s diplomatic isolation will reduce the chance of the final fructification of the CPEC, especially as financial strictures against it would initiate unprecedented unpredictability. This is where China perceives that by supporting Pakistan and giving Masood Azhar another lease of life it is warding off unpredictability. Given Pakistan’s crucial geo-strategic position China possibly considers that Pakistan with Chinese support can weather the current storm. Once the US is out of the region, the options for China would become manifold.

By having expected potential Chinese support for the resolution India may actually have been linking its situation to China’s suffering from the ills of its self-created terror problem in Xinjiang. However, China’s strategic thinking is only from the head and rarely from the heart. Weakening the Imran Khan government can only be catastrophic as Pakistan has run out of options in terms of leadership. Pakistan could have helped itself considerably by banning Masood Azhar internally. That would be wishful thinking and may have led to some degree of turmoil internally within Pakistan once again leading to political instability; much against Chinese interests. Anything leading to even part failure of the CPEC could also have a severe impact on the other projects of the Belt & Road Initiative.

A diplomatic victory achieved by India would militate against the strategic interests of China. It would translate into disadvantage Pakistan. Chinese interests with reference to Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) revolve around promoting instability there which allows the larger Sino Pak game plan of containing India. India may have imagined that with the Wuhan spirit a period of rapprochement with China was unfolding. However, the New Great Game to the west is far too crucial to China because the future of its imagined empire lies through the connectivity gained there. Giving India any leverage through the strategic downsizing of Pakistan would be to China’s disadvantage. Masood Azhar is really not the issue for China as people may imagine, it’s the far more important dynamics of the strategic space around Pakistan which concern China.

Has India overestimated the Wuhan spirit? Prime Minister Modi rightly invested much time and energy in it to stabilise the post-Doklam relationship which was threatening to go out of control. There is no doubt that the Wuhan spirit cannot receive the same positivity when a crucial part of India is under threat with the support of China. It would thus be best for India to withhold positive gestures and let the Wuhan spirit be partially mothballed for the moment. Let realistic realpolitik play its role to communicate to China that two processes, one friendly and the other decidedly unfriendly cannot go hand in hand.

China is most sensitive to India’s active role in the Quadrilateral of Nations (Quad). It’s the Wuhan spirit which was holding India back from giving it unequivocal support to the Quad.  In real terms the proscribing of Masood Azhar, even if not achieved, would make little difference.  The wayward ways of Pakistan’s deep state remained intact even after Hafiz Sayeed was placed under UN ban ten years ago. However, given Pakistan’s continuously enhancing strategic significance we should be prepared for more surprises such as grant of the IMF loan and greater delay in the Financial Action Task Force strictures.

All the above would lead to greater Pakistani propensity to run the risk of targeting India in J&K, in particular, through proxy actors. India which will have to calibrate better its hold over J&K and resolve to go beyond just the military approach, to finally engage with the people and mainstream them with rest of India.

(This article was originally published on The DNA. Read the original article)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)