China’s decision to block the listing of Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar as a global terrorist at the UN Security Council is both a setback to India’s post-Pulwama diplomatic strategy and a reality check on ties with China at present. After the February 14 attack, claimed by the JeM, the government had made the listing of Azhar a focus in its diplomatic efforts. It reached out to several governments, and shared a dossier on Azhar with each member of the Security Council, who are all members of the 1267 ISIL and al-Qaeda sanctions committee. A special effort was made with Beijing, which has blocked the Azhar listing in the past, including just after the 2008 Mumbai attacks. From 2016 to 2018, India’s proposals to list Azhar, with evidence of JeM involvement in the Pathankot airbase attack, were also foiled by China, which placed holds on the listing, and then vetoed it. The vetoes came despite the fact that the JeM is banned, and in the UNSC listing it is noted that Azhar, as its leader and founder, accepted funds from Osama bin Laden. China, as the one country that has refused to allow Azhar’s name on the list, is well aware of the evidence against him, but is not ready to withdraw its objections. It is clear that despite India-China relations improving after the Wuhan summit in April 2018, China is unwilling to align itself with India on its concerns on cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan.
China’s stand is regrettable and condemnable, and it has been consistent on this issue. New Delhi must now consider whether it wishes to accept this as a fait accompli, or confront Beijing to try to persuade it to change its stand by means of incentives or coercion. This is a challenge, as any kind of concerted international pressure from the Western countries in this regard has in the past only served to be counterproductive. It is also unlikely that the suggestions being offered by some political groups, of cutting imports from China and other punitive actions, will yield much. The government may be more successful if it identifies the incentives it can offer China in the next few months to review its position. While some of those incentives would be bilateral, the Chinese spokesperson’s hint that dialogue between New Delhi and Islamabad, and even possible “triangular” talks including Beijing, is indicative of China’s thinking. The government must also not lose sight of the bigger picture: that the UNSC cannot enforce its own listings, and other leaders who have been sanctioned in the past remain free and unencumbered. While listing Azhar at the UNSC is an unfinished task, the larger issue remains: to ensure that Pakistan takes substantive action against Azhar, the JeM and other terror groups that are threatening India. China, with its economic and strategic leverage with Pakistan, may be better-placed to help in this matter.