Alliance with Pakistan Matters More to China Than Terrorism

For years, many Americans and some Indians have voiced hopes of enrolling China’s support in modifying Pakistan’s behaviour in relation to Jihadi terrorism. China’s recent decision to block efforts at the United Nations Security Council to designate Jaish-e-Mohammed leader, Maulana Masood Azhar, as a terrorist in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack points to the futility of such efforts.

China’s outlook is strategic. It has invested a lot of time, energy, and resources in assuring Pakistan that Beijing is Islamabad’s ‘all-weather friend’ and international partner of last resort. Pakistan’s establishment viewed India as a permanent enemy long before assurances of China’s support helped cement that hostility.

From the perspective of Pakistan’s establishment, it can continue to confront its ‘permanent enemy’ without risk of international isolation or significant retaliation as long as China remains on its side. For China, Pakistan serves as a low-cost secondary deterrent to India. Pakistan keeps hundreds of thousands of Indian troops tied down, making it difficult for India to join American-led efforts to contain China’s growing power in the Indo-Pacific.

Thus, China’s decision to block Masood Azhar’s designation as a terrorist by the UN through a ‘technical hold’ was not about the merits of the case against Masood Azhar. A UN designation would have led to freezing of Azhar’s assets, a travel ban, and an arms embargo. None of these sanctions would have had any effect any way as others already subject to UN sanctions continue to operate freely and prosper in Pakistan.

China requested for more time to examine the request for Azhar’s terrorist designation, the fourth time it has done so over the last ten years. If the United States, Britain, France, and India sought the designation to give Pakistan a message that its support of terrorist groups was unacceptable, China’s purpose was to reassure Pakistanis that Beijing would not allow Pakistan being embarrassed or isolated.

China’s desire to maintain Pakistan’s confidence as a secondary deterrent or an irritant for India differs from Pakistan’s motive in continuing to protect Masood Azhar. Pakistan does not want the list of Pakistan-based terrorists subject to UN sanctions to grow further. Its policy of ignoring the designations notwithstanding, Pakistan would rather not have to deal with the legal requirements of implementing UN terrorist designations.

But more important, from Pakistan’s viewpoint, is the perception created by designation as a terrorist of someone living comfortably on its soil. It draws attention to Pakistan being a safe haven for terrorist groups, something Pakistan’s officials would rather deny than confront.

China does not seem to care that Pakistan’s story on Masood Azhar keeps changing, is often contradictory, and is seen by the rest of the world as a blatant lie. For Beijing, Islamabad is its strategic partner in South Asia and the partner’s wishes take priority over all other factors.

That Masood Azhar belongs on the list of internationally designated terrorists is not in doubt. Pakistan’s former military chief and president, General Pervez Musharraf, has acknowledged that Azhar and his Jaish-e-Mohammed were involved in efforts to assassinate him. But Azhar’s actions as a terrorist are still not enough to make him guilty in the eyes of Pakistan’s establishment and its public advocates.

In Pakistan’s official narrative, the grievances of Pakistan and Kashmiris against India somehow mitigate the violent actions of terrorists like Masood Azhar. What else would explain Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s sympathetic description of Azhar in an interview on CNN? Instead of denying that Azhar was in Pakistan, Qureshi said that he was in Pakistan but “He is unwell to the extent that he can’t leave his house, because he’s really unwell.”

That sympathetic attitude towards Masood Azhar, the terrorist, must be compared with the attitude of the government Qureshi serves towards former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is in prison on corruption charges. Sharif is reportedly very unwell, but his family is being refused permission to visit him.

Clearly, in the eyes of Pakistan’s establishment and the civilians it has put in cabinet, an allegedly corrupt Sharif deserves greater punishment than Azhar whom the world sees as a terrorist.

None of this matters to the Chinese regime, which seems singularly focused on exercising its status as the world’s rising great power. China managed to expand its economy by convincing the US and the rest of the world that it would embrace political and social freedom after attaining exponential growth under a freer market.

Now that it has significantly more resources than it previously did, China remains a bastion of authoritarianism. Under President Xi Jinping, China hopes to build its military prowess and exercise its power globally. Like all major powers, China needs allies and wants to preempt the rise of potential rivals in its geographic proximity.

India and Japan are China’s targets for containment; Pakistan, as a presumptive rival of India, and any country with historic grievances against Japan (North Korea comes to mind) are China’s natural allies in Asia. Pakistan is an important piece on China’s strategic chessboard and Chinese leaders cannot allow concerns about terrorism to disrupt their larger strategy.

As the Chinese see it, they condemned the Pulwama attack and that was enough of a nod to India, which is a larger trading partner for China than Pakistan. Expecting anything more than that was an error on part of Indian officials who should understand the difference between tactical and strategic considerations.

For years China had put a similar hold on the designation as terrorists of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) founder Hafiz Saeed and his Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) by the UN Security Council. In the aftermath of the November 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008, China withdrew its hold at the urging of Pakistan’s then civilian government.

Saeed and three other JuD leaders considered masterminds or financiers of the Mumbai attacks were subjected to UN sanctions in December 2008 after Pakistan asked the Chinese to drop its ‘technical hold’ on their designation as terrorists. At that time, Pakistan’s civilian leaders who succeeded Musharraf’s military dictatorship felt they needed to take serious action to avoid retribution in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks.

Now, attitudes in Islamabad have changed. The civilian government led by Imran Khan is unwilling to go beyond lip service over action against terrorists operating in Afghanistan or India. Pakistan’s military feels it has leverage once again as facilitator of US talks with the Taliban. There is neither commitment nor incentive for Pakistan to ask China to stop blocking UN sanctions against Pakistan-based terrorists.

The only conclusion one can draw from the developments at the UN Security Council over the Masood Azhar case is that Pakistan does not wish to act against its Jihadis operating in Kashmir or against India. China, too, is unwilling to abandon its long-term strategy of propping up Pakistan against India.

It is time for those in Washington and New Delhi who keep expecting change in Pakistan’s behaviour on terrorism or China’s behaviour in relation to Pakistan to adjust their unrealistic expectations and forge a realistic counter-strategy.

Photo Credit: Sheng Jiapeng/China News Service/VCG via Getty Images

This article was originally posted by The Print. It was posted here with the author's permission.