A cautious détente?

There were celebrations in India when China finally revoked its opposition to the UN’s sanctioning of JeM leader Masood Azhar as a terrorist, clearing the way for his inclusion on an international ‘blacklist’. Nicholas Nugent considers what led to China’s change of heart

The long-awaited inclusion of Jaish-e-Muhammed leader Masood Azhar on the United Nations’ terrorist ‘blacklist’ imposes obligations on the government of his host country, Pakistan. It is expected to freeze funds, impose a travel ban and enforce an arms embargo to prevent the direct or indirect supply of arms to any sanctioned individual.

Coming midway through India’s general election, China’s decision to withdraw its objection to the blacklisting of Azhar led to rival claims by political parties battling each other at the polls. Narendra Modi’s BJP claimed credit for initiating the move after the February 14 Pulwama suicide attack, which resulted in the deaths of 40 Central Reserve Police Force members. So did Rahul Gandhi’s Congress Party, saying the initial request to sanction Azhar was made ten years ago, when Congress was in power. While neither party made much political capital from the move, both agreed it was a big ‘plus’ for India vis-à-vis the disputed region of Kashmir, with the UN overall backing India’s case against Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM).

Less clear is why China should have made the move at this time. Ten days earlier, India’s foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale paid a visit to Beijing for what were described by China as ‘regular bilateral consultations. It was presumed in Delhi that the visit was connected to the Belt and Road summit meeting days later, which India did not attend.

Following the summit, Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan was pictured in talks with the Chinese president, Xi Jinping. It would be surprising if India’s renewed demand for the JeM leader to be sanctioned was not among the topics discussed.

Nicholas Nugent, who follows Asian diplomacy, has recently been in India observing the elections

Within days, China had withdrawn its objection and the UN added Azhar to its terrorism blacklist, which is believed to have 850 names on it, more than 140 of whom are based in Pakistan. It was a diplomatic success for India.

One explanation for China’s change of heart could be its own concerns about the activity of Pakistan-based militants, which are twofold. China fears that the road connecting Pakistan to its western Xinjiang region could be used as a backdoor for armed supporters of greater autonomy for Uighur Muslims who live there. China also worries that Baluch rebels threaten the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as it traverses Baluchistan to reach the port of Gwadar in western Pakistan. At a cost of US $60billion, CPEC is the largest single project of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Alternatively, the withdrawal of China’s block on the sanctioning of Azhar could have been encouraged by Pakistan, which is worried that the large number of militants it allegedly harbours may undermine efforts to win a needed loan of up to US$8 billion from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The inter-governmental Financial Action Task Force (FATF) holds nations to account in curtailing the activities and funding of terrorist groups on its soil. It is due to meet in Florida in mid-June and could sway the IMF decision. Pakistan is reported to have asked for more time to put in place measures to curb terrorist activity.

Yet another argument holds that the removal of China’s blacklisting objection is part of a gradual but determined improvement in China-India relations. India may not be a participant in China’s prestigious project to invest in international infrastructure, but there are signs that India is relaxing, if not ending, its criticism of China’s BRI investment. Thispartly stems from the fact that the corridor to Pakistan on the Karakoram Highway passes through territory which India claims.

Before the Azhar issue was resolved, news emerged that China and India plan a follow-up summit to that which took place between President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Wuhan, China, in April 2018. A spokesman in Delhi said the ‘informal’ summit, dubbed Wuhan-2, would take place in India, probably in October.

There is clearly a warm personal relationship between the two Titans who together preside over more than a third of the world’s population. China’s friendship with Pakistan does not prevent it improving relations with India, a major trading partner with whom it shares a 3,488-km border. Wuhan-2 is expected to address the issue of agreeing and demarcating this disputed frontier.

China invited Indian warships to participate in April’s 70th anniversary flotilla of the naval wing of the PLA
China invited Indian warships to participate in April’s 70th anniversary flotilla of the naval wing of the PLA

Another sign of warming relations between the nuclear-armed rivals was China’s invitation to the Indian navy to send warships to take part in the 70th anniversary flotilla of the naval wing of the People’s Liberation Army in April.

Well-informed sources say the Chinese decision followed intense diplomacy over several weeks involving the United States, Pakistan, China and India, as well as France and Britain, both of which are permanent Security Council members. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo acknowledged his country’s involvement when he tweeted that the designation of Azhar as a terrorist was ‘a victory for American diplomacy and the international community’. The Indian Express newspaper quoted an unnamed official as saying it was ‘a multilateral game played at subterranean level’ in conditions of secrecy. The key was that all four main players had specific and overlapping objectives.

India wanted Azhar, once a prisoner of India until a hijack demand forced his release, sanctioned as a first stage in possible efforts to solve the Kashmir issue with Pakistan. For reasons of prestige, China wants India to join 129 other countries in committing to its Belt and Road Initiative – or at least to withdraw its vocal opposition to BRI diplomacy. One project in which India has an interest, an economic corridor linking India to China through Bangladesh and Myanmar, cannot proceed unless India gives its assent.

According to the Indian Express, Pakistan presented five Kashmir-related demands to India, which included the opening of a dialogue over Kashmir. Some of these, such as not linking Azhar with the Pulwama attack, were unacceptable to India. More fundamentally, Pakistan urgently needs US support for its loan bid – and it wants India to agree to talk about Kashmir.

The United States, currently engaged in complicated trade talks with China, has one special need: to persuade China and India to stop buying oil from Iran, of which they are together the largest purchasers. The United States and China also both supports moves towards an early resolution of the 72-year-old Kashmir dispute.

It may be assumed that all involved gained something from these talks, even if this only becomes obvious over time. Once a new government is in place in India, it may relax its opposition to the Belt and Road Initiative and may in due course sign up. We already know the two neighbours plan an informal summit later this year.

The Indian and Pakistani prime ministers are expected to meet and talk at the China-backed Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting in the Kyrgyzstan capital, Bishkek, in June. Kashmir is a pressing, indeed burning, topic for them both.

Nicholas Nugent, who follows Asian diplomacy, has recently been in India observing the elections  

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