After years of stiff resistance to the United Nations branding as a global terrorist Pakistani jihadi Masood Azhar, the founder of Jaish-e-Mohammad and author of a horrific November 2011 attack in Mumbai that took 174 lives, China has withdrawn its objection and allowed the designation.
The development ends two decades of India’s and indeed the world’s battle with Beijing to get Azhar listed. After the 2011 attacks in which 300 were also wounded by Jaish-e-Mohammad, India proposed a ban on Azhar, but China repeatedly refused to accept evidence against him.
China has scuppered the move against Azhar as many as four times. On March 13, it blocked a proposal by France, backed by the US and the UK, in the Al Qaeda Sanctions Committee, saying it needed more time to study the case. In 2016 and 2017, China did the same although it accepted other listings against terrorists based in Pakistan, raising suspicion that Azhar was under Islamabad’s special protection.
In February this year, the jihadi group took responsibility for the Pulwama suicide attack on a police convoy in Jammu and Kashmir that killed 40 members of India’s leading counter-insurgency force Central Reserve Police Force, bringing nuclear-armed India and Pakistan almost to the brink of war.
Nor was this the first incident of the organization unleashing terror in the Kashmir valley to trigger upheaval. Jaish-e-Mohammad has been at it for more than two decades. It is considered responsible for the 13 December 2001 attack on India’s parliament Ironically, Azhar was released from an Indian jail as part of a hostage exchange following the hijacking of an Indian Airlines aircraft in December 1999.
Freed in Taliban-controlled territory in Kandahar, Afghanistan, he returned to Pakistan where he resumed terrorist activities under the banner of JeM, which was reportedly founded in 2000 with the help of Pakistani intelligence agencies. The 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament was also carried out by Jaish-e-Mohammad.
In October 2001, the UN Security Council committee listed the Jaish-e-Mohammad, noting that Azhar founded and funded it with help from Osama Bin Laden, but didn’t ban Azhar himself.
Defending its repeated attempts to block the listing of Azhar as a 'global terrorist' by the UN, China countered the US allegation that Beijing's action amounted to protecting violent Islamic groups from sanctions, saying all terrorist actors must be condemned, a jibe at India. In fact, having successfully wooed Pakistan away from US strategic alliance, Beijing’s efforts are aimed at keeping its ally happy.
This March, Paris, backed by Washington and London, initiated the resolution to designate Azhar as a global terrorist. While Russia didn’t co-sponsor the resolution, it decided to vote in India’s favor. China was alone in halting the process by opposing the move, which was endorsed by 14 countries.
Analysts say China has shielded Azhar as a quid pro quo for Pakistani support in China's crackdown on the Uighurs. After the Pulwama terror attacks and under ensuing world pressure, it seemed untenable for China to blindly support Azhar.
There is speculation that Azhar, who Pakistan’s government claims is very ill, has outlived his usefulness, enabling China to do a rethink on the terrorist’s utility to cause further destabilization in India. Despite that, China did place a hold on the listing on March 13, which it has now removed. Azhar will now be subject to an assets freeze, global ban and arms embargo.
Of the several reasons for Beijing’s U turn on the issue, experts say two seem prominent. One, it is a nod to a growing world consensus on counterterrorism. Combined efforts of the US, the UK and France have pushed China to change its mind, even threatening a public vote at the Security Council.
“China seems to have finally got the message that supporting Azhar wasn’t good optics for a country that harbors ambitions to be a global superpower,” said Kirit Parikh, a member of a Delhi-based think tank. “Plus, Beijing is facing global criticism of its belt and road initiative.”
Another reason for Beijing’s changed stance on Azhar is the Indian political leadership’s increased toughness towards Pakistan. Despite ardent wooing by the Chinese leadership, India has steadfastly refused to be part of China’s BRI scheme, citing violation of its territorial integrity as the main reason.
Delhi has also put up a fierce resistance to Beijing’s territorial transgressions against itself and its neighbors. In June-August 2017 the Indian Army's aggressive maneuvers during the Doklam standoff with China signaled India’s unwillingness to allow Beijing’s incursions into what Delhi considered its own sphere of influence. Finally, after two months, having failed to seize territory, the People's Liberation Army backed off.
India also handed over a dossier to the Acting High Commissioner of Pakistan in New Delhi earlier this year with specific details of Jaish-e-Mohammad’s complicity in the Pulwama attacks and the presence of terror camps and its leadership in Pakistan. Mindful of Delhi’s changed stance, the Chinese are calibrating their India policy.
Another important reason behind the Chinese climbdown on Azhar is that it fears its continued sheltering of the terrorist will expose its duplicity on Muslim terror. Beijing has thrown an estimated one to two million of its Uighur citizens, who are Muslims, into internment facilities, earning global opprobrium.
The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted on March 28 that “The world cannot afford China’s shameful hypocrisy toward Muslims. On one hand, China abuses more than a million Muslims at home, but on the other, it protects violent Islamic terrorist groups from sanctions at the UN.” It was a first such direct hit on China’s Muslim problem from a cabinet-rank US official.
China has also been accused of turning its far-flung western region of Xinjiang “into something that resembled a massive internment camp shrouded in secrecy, a ‘no rights zone,” reported Reuters.”.
Most of those who have been rounded up by the security forces are Uighurs, an ethnic minority numbering 10 million. Muslims from other ethnic groups, including Kazakhs, have also been detained.
The crackdown includes tight control over information and access to the region. Xinjiang is now one of the most heavily policed areas in the world, according to academics and human rights groups. This follows the launching of a “people’s war on terror” in 2014 after a series of violent attacks in Xinjiang and other parts of China that authorities blamed on religious extremists.
China says the Uighur camps are vocational training centers that emphasize “rehabilitation and redemption” and are part of its efforts to combat terrorism and religious extremism.
In the meantime, the bigger question that hangs fire is – how much action will Pakistan take against Azhar? Even if he is detained, skepticism still lingers over Pakistan’s intent to rein him in. Pakistan’s other prominent terror-designate Hafiz Saeed remains free despite being labeled more than a decade ago for the Mumbai attacks.
According to Vinay Kaura of India’s Department of International Affairs and Security Studies, in Rajasthan, China’s acquiescence to the labeling of Azhar seems only tactical, It is not a transformative shift in Beijing’s ties with Islamabad.
Good can only come out if Islamabad enforces the letter of the UNSC mandate by shutting down Azhar’s ability to operate, and of his group’s ability to carry out terror attacks in India. This will include – according to the UN resolution – cutting off Azhar's recourse to funds and arms, and also ensuring he cannot travel out of Pakistan.
As Kaura wrote in his column for The Hindu: “The fluid geopolitical environment in South Asia, as well as India’s continued refusal to become a part of the Belt and Road Initiative, ensure that the strategic value of Pakistan for China is not going to diminish in the foreseeable future.”
In other words, India and the world’s battle with China to brand Azhar a terrorist may well come to naught if Pakistan doesn’t follow the UN’s directive.
Neeta Lal is a Delhi-based editor and journalist as well as a longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel. Twitter: @neeta_com