Masood Azhar’s blacklisting at UN: Why did China suddenly relent after a decade of dogged obstructionism?

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Masood Azhar
People burn pictures of Masood Azhar, the head of a Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad, as they celebrate the U.N. Security Council committee's decision to blacklist Azhar, in Ahmedabad, India May 1, 2019. REUTERS/Amit Dave - RC1387D15F00

On the face of it, the narrative is simple enough. Masood Azhar has been finally listed in the United Nations Security Council’s 1267 Committee as a “global terrorist” ostensibly because China, the lone veto-wielding nation at the UNSC that had been scuttling previous efforts four times in 10 years, is finally “convinced” of the Jaish-e-Muhammad chief’s culpability in promoting acts of terror.

And yet no one really believes in this narrative. The question that emerges from Azhar’s new designation as a “terrorist” — 18 years after his organisation was blacklisted at the UN — is why did China suddenly give in after a decade of obstructionism?

The question takes us to the heart of South Asia’s security dynamics and a set of complex bilateral and multilateral relationships between India and Pakistan, India and China, Pakistan and China and US, China and India. These are the broadest brush strokes possible.

Above all else, the 1 May decision is the culmination of prolonged, intense and dogged diplomatic negotiations carried out by India. As Syed Akbaruddin, India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, put it in a video statement: “We have been persistent, diligent and in a subterranean manner, making all our efforts towards this goal… Today that goal stands achieved. This is, for us, a significant outcome because we have been at it for several years.”

India has obviously been at the forefront, but take nothing away from the heavy lifting done by the United States in conjunction with the United Kingdom, France and certain other non-permanent UN members to cajole, drive and nudge China towards the desired outcome. In fact, one of the reasons why the Masood Azhar issue was such a big diplomatic victory for India is that it became a motif of global consensus on terrorism. And the victory is sweeter still because India managed to rope in all nations — “big” and “small” — in proscribing Azhar at the United Nations.

This is way more complex than it sounds because Chinese obstructionism was a big hurdle, and in the transactional lexicon of Chinese diplomacy, India apparently had no leverage to offer in exchange for which China could go against its client state’s wishes and let Azhar be blacklisted. The four previous attempts (in 2009, 2016, 2017 and 2019) to get the Pulwama massacre mastermind designated as a “terrorist” fell through because China’s cost-benefit calculus was skewed in favour of status quo.

If that is the case, what changed the equation, finally, on May Day?

Among other reasons, the most important one is Pakistan’s economic predicament that has tied its hands and degraded its ability to use terror tools as a bargaining chip — a tactic it has successfully employed for several decades. A situation of near bankruptcy has forced Pakistan to knock on the doors of International Monetary Fund. And that’s where the problem begins for the near-failing state which must adhere to strict monitoring of its debt-restructuring, economic resources and a thorough explanation on why it needed to knock on the IMF’s doors.

As an IMF official put it in February when it became clear that Pakistan needs a rather large loan package, “The conditions associated with a loan will include some harsh measures and the government will have to be very prepared to explain why Pakistan has been forced to return to the IMF.”

To this problem, which makes it difficult for Pakistan to play truant with international rules, has been added the “grey listing” by FATF, the global financial watchdog that has been steadily gaining teeth and acquiring large powers to go after terror financing and states that indulge in terror financing. Pakistan faces the problem of a potential “blacklist” that would add to its already precarious economic woes. It needs to show demonstrable action against terrorists — something it has consistently failed to do.

The situation became grimmer for Pakistan following the Pulwama terror attacks. The Paris-based FATF condemned the terrorist assault that killed 40 Indian soldiers and issued a statement, saying: “Pakistan did not have a proper understanding of the terror financing risks posed by the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, Falah-e-Insaniat, Lashkar-e-Taiba, JeM, (Haqqani Network) and persons affiliated with the Taliban.” An Asia-Pacific Group (APG) delegation on money laundering — affiliated to the FATF — visited Pakistan in March and maintained that Islamabad isn’t doing enough to rein in the terror outfits operating from its soil.

The Masood Azhar issue, therefore, presented a low-cost option for Pakistan. The JeM chief is reportedly unwell. The once blue-eyed-boy of Pakistan’s spy agency, Azhar is now almost a dispensable figure within the Pakistani military establishment and he could be used as a bargaining chip to get some relief from the FATF and avoid a blacklisting. These discussions may have taken place between China and Pakistan when Imran went to Beijing, and it is possible that a blueprint for Azhar’s proscribing was readied there.

It is inconceivable that China would have kept Pakistan in the dark and let the United Nations declare Azhar a global terrorist. The omission of the word “Pulwama” from the official reasons cited by the UNSC behind Azhar’s blacklisting is a possible face-saver given to Pakistan, for whom delinking of Pulwama and Azhar is vital. Pakistan’s acts of terror and subversion in Kashmir is explained domestically as Kashmir’s “indigenous freedom struggle” and it would have agreed to put Azhar on the block in exchange for this semantic jugglery.

If that’s the Pakistani motive behind the Chinese decision, what’s Beijing’s own game? For starters, it is worth noting India’s reaction when China had put latest its technical hold on Azhar’s blacklisting in March. The statement by India’s external affairs ministry did not name China and by all accounts, for a country that had been doggedly pursuing this issue for a decade and has been repeatedly frustrated by one nation, it was surprisingly mild.

“We are disappointed by this outcome. This has prevented action by the international community to designate the leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), a proscribed and active terrorist organization which has claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack in Jammu and Kashmir on 14 February,” read the MEA statement.

It now appears, as has been reported in some sections of media, that intense dialogue was underway between India, China, United States and some like-minded democracies on the modalities of the “deal”. Two concurrent issues made this “deal” possible — one coercive and another transactional.

The United States drove a resolution to discuss the issue of Azhar’s blacklisting at the UNSC, instead of the ISIL and Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee” (or the 1267 Committee). This created the possibility that China would be forced to defend Masood Azhar on the world stage in full public glare, instead of private negotiations as is the norm with the 1267 panel. This may impose unacceptable reputational costs on China, which seeks to replace the United States as a global superpower, and force it to choose between siding with a notorious terrorist or his proscribing at the United Nations.

The transactional bit came from India, which agreed to remain silent on the BRI issue, unlike in the past when it issued statements even though it made it clear that its stance on BRI won’t change.
China, which remains jittery at the prospect of a closer US-India strategic tango on the Indo-Pacific, may have also detected an opening in the way United States’ secondary sanctions against Iran are going to affect India’s fuel economy. A low-cost, goodwill gesture on China’s part creates a positive environment where future negotiation on contentious issues could be based. The move, in the end, signifies the web of concessions, coercion and conciliation between nations on the issue of terrorism.

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