Masood Azhar Is China’s Favorite Terrorist

Beijing’s U.N. block sent a signal—and a warning—to Pakistan.

Indian Muslims hold a scratched photo of Masood Azhar as they shout slogans against Pakistan during a protest in Mumbai on Feb. 15. (Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images)
Indian Muslims hold a scratched photo of Masood Azhar as they shout slogans against Pakistan during a protest in Mumbai on Feb. 15. (Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images)

On March 13, China placed a “technical hold” on a resolution calling on the United Nations Security Council to designate Masood Azhar, the leader of the Pakistani militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), as a terrorist. Beijing’s intervention effectively torpedoed the measure. This marked the fourth time that China has prevented Azhar, who enjoys long-standing ties to the Pakistani security establishment, from being officially designated a terrorist by the United Nations.

There had been good reason to believe that this time might be different, and that Beijing would step back and let the resolution get approved. The fact that the fourth time wasn’t the charm speaks volumes about how deep the partnership between China and Pakistan still runs, and how far Beijing is willing to go to defend its “iron brother.”

So important is the China-Pakistan partnership that Beijing was willing to stick its neck out in support of a key terrorist asset of the Pakistani state who garners little sympathy outside Pakistan. At home, Beijing has sent hundreds of thousands of innocent Chinese Muslims to detention centers under the guise of counterterrorism, but it has bent over backwards to protect an actual Islamist terrorist abroad.

The move came even though global pressure has intensified on Pakistan to crack down harder on India-focused terrorists on its soil. The trigger was a February 14 attack on Indian security forces, claimed by JeM, in the Indian-administered part of Kashmir. The assault, which killed more than 40 paramilitary troops, was the deadliest attack on Indian security forces, and in Kashmir on the whole, in years. Nearly 50 countries, including all five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (even China), issued statements condemning the tragedy, and many called on Pakistan to crack down on JeM. Soon after the attack, the United States, with support from fellow Security Council members France and the United Kingdom, proposed the resolution. The Trump administration, according to Indian press accounts, tried to convince Beijing to support it.

And yet China defied all the pressure and refused.

That’s especially strange given that the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) gives Beijing a major incentive to take a stronger stand on terror in South Asia. Despite mounting financing concerns, Beijing continues to build the mammoth transport corridor that the BRI, now a much more expansive project, was originally conceived as, and South Asia figures prominently in its plans. Two key pathways—the China-Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)—pass directly through the region.

The BRI needs stability to succeed, and terror groups like JeM are inherently destabilizing. While most JeM attacks have been carried out in the Indian-administered portion of Kashmir, where the BRI doesn’t have a footprint, the group has previously been implicated in at least one attack in Pakistan. According to the U.S. government and independent analysts, it has also maintained a presence in Afghanistan. Additionally, JeM has ties to al Qaeda.

But Beijing refused to sanction the leader of one of South Asia’s most destabilizing entities. This is striking, given that Beijing frequently uses the rhetoric of terror to demonize and delegitimize lesser threats, especially the Uighurs. Some years back, as Richard Bernstein recently described in The Atlantic, Beijing went so far as to convince the United States to detain 22 Uighurs—none of whom had any apparent links to terror—in Guantánamo Bay. And yet when it comes to Masood Azhar, who heads a potent terror group linked to al Qaeda with regional reach, China all but legitimized a terrorist by refusing to have him officially designated as such.

Perhaps the biggest reason to have believed China would let Azhar be designated a terrorist is that it would have been a low-risk move for Beijing. Pakistan’s close friendship with and deep dependence on China—which increased after the United States suspended its security assistance to Pakistan last year—means Islamabad would have been in no position to express displeasure, much less retaliate. So there would have been no deleterious consequences for bilateral relations. In fact, allowing the resolution to pass would have benefited Beijing: It would have brought China some international goodwill at a moment when its global image has been marred by its cruel and repressive policies toward the Uighur community.

In effect, Beijing declined to make a relatively cost-free move that could have helped advance its interests in South Asia and given a much-needed boost to its reputation. It’s a decision that can largely be attributed to the strength of the China-Pakistan relationship.

This partnership, motivated by shared rivalry with India, isn’t as ironclad as the heady official rhetoric (“sweeter than honey,” “higher than the Himalayas”) might suggest. But it’s still warmer, deeper, and more strategically vital than just about any other bilateral relationship in Asia.

And yet Beijing’s decision to block Azhar’s designation should be read not only as a show of support for Pakistan, but also as an effort to reaffirm China’s continued commitment to the country—at a moment when Islamabad may fear Beijing is wobbling.

Over the last year, as the U.S.-India defense partnership continued to gain speed, Beijing sought a rapprochement of sorts with New Delhi. In March 2018, amid efforts to move beyond their tense standoff on the Doklam Plateau in the summer of 2017, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a strong pitch to end confrontation and initiate conciliation. “The Chinese dragon and Indian elephant must not fight each other but dance with each other,” Wang declared in a press conference.

Then, in April 2018, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping held an informal summit in Wuhan, China, that led to a commitment to cooperate on joint training programs for Afghan diplomats. Later that year, there was talk, mainly from the Chinese side, of potential India-China cooperation on connectivity projects in Afghanistan—and even in Pakistan.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Beijing has declined to defend Pakistan in global forums on several occasions over the past year. In February 2018, it refused to oppose a measure at the Financial Action Task Force to put Pakistan on its so-called gray list for failing to curb terrorist financing. In July, Beijing signed on to a public statement issued by the Heart of Asia initiative (a 14-nation collective focused on promoting stability in Afghanistan) that condemned JeM and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT)—another major Pakistan-based, India-focused terror group—by name. This came less than a year after China did the same with a statement issued at a BRICS summit.

And then came the recent India-Pakistan crisis, when India and Pakistan launched air strikes on each other’s soil and brought the subcontinent to the brink of war.  Beijing was quiet throughout the crisis and never expressed public support for Islamabad. Instead, it called for restraint.

In reality, Pakistan shouldn’t need reminding that China is still on its side. The India-China rivalry remains strong and fraught, and it’s destined to deepen in the coming years as the two Asian giants ramp up competition for markets, mineral resources, and influence. And a bitter territorial dispute—the cause of a 1962 war—remains unresolved. Still, signaling is important in international relations, and Beijing’s obstructionism at the U.N. sent a strong message.

To be sure, other factors may have prompted China’s move as well. With Pakistan facing mounting debt to Beijing from CPEC, and with several Belt and Road countries having backed out of projects over the past year due to financing concerns, Beijing may have wanted to make a gesture of goodwill to get Islamabad to shake off any emerging discontent over CPEC. Additionally, Beijing may have wanted to offer a sop to Pakistan to preclude any chance of Islamabad calling China out for its Uighur policy. While Pakistan, like every other government of a Muslim-majority country (except Turkey), has maintained a deafening silence on the matter, one can’t rule out the possibility, however remote, of Prime Minister Imran Khan—a bold leader with a populist streak—speaking out at some point. If Khan doesn’t take it up, the opposition may.

All this said, one gets the impression that Beijing didn’t block Azhar’s listing with glee, and that it did so somewhat grudgingly. The official Chinese justification for its technical hold—it needed more time to think the matter through—suggests a level of indecision. Also, on March 17, Luo Zhaohui, China’s ambassador to India, struck a conciliatory tone, saying, “We understand India’s concerns and are optimistic this matter will be resolved.” At the very least, Beijing appears to be trying to soften the blow of the move for Indian audiences, indicating a desire not to antagonize New Delhi.

As for New Delhi, it has handled this whole episode quite well. Even amid shrill calls from some hawkish quarters for retaliation—including a social media campaign to boycott Chinese goods—India has reacted quite calmly. The government released a fairly anodyne statement that spoke of being “disappointed by this outcome” and vowed to “continue to pursue all available avenues to ensure that terrorist leaders who are involved in heinous attacks on our citizens are brought to justice.”

This was the right move. At the end of the day, China’s move doesn’t amount to much. It’s symbolic at best. Had Azhar been sanctioned, he would have faced an assets freeze, an arms embargo, and a travel ban. However, according to multiple Indian media reports as well as Pakistan’s own foreign minister, Azhar is very ill and hardly likely to move about.

However, based on past precedent, even if we assume Azhar is still actively driving JeM’s operations and strategy, listing him would have had a minimal impact—especially in the context of Pakistan. Hafiz Saeed, the leader of LeT, was listed in December 2008 (a move China did not prevent) just days after his group carried out the Mumbai terror attacks. Over the past decade, Saeed has largely lived unencumbered and led the life of a law-abiding thought leader: He has moved about freely, delivered fiery public lectures, and given media interviews. This year, he even filed (unsuccessfully) a formal request for his U.N. terror designation to be repealed.

Ultimately, India wants to be seen as a responsible rising power. Rather than fixating on the symbolic pass China gave to an infirm militant, New Delhi is better off tapping into the growing resolve within the international community to combat Pakistan-based terrorism, and working multilaterally in other forums to curb a threat that is of great global concern.

Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman

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