China’s U-turn over UN labeling of Masood Azhar
When it comes to China and Masood Azhar, it turns out that the fifth time was the charm. On four previous occasions, the UN Security Council had proposed resolutions calling for Azhar, head of the Pakistani militant organization Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), to be designated as a terrorist. All four times, permanent Security Council member China refused to let the resolutions go forward, using its power of veto.
Yet on May 1, Beijing finally let the designation go through. Azhar has now been subjected to a travel ban and arms embargo, and his assets have been frozen.
When we watch this same pattern playing out again and again in international relations, it is sometimes hard to figure out what factors lead to a change. In this case, however, it is fairly easy to make sense of what happened.
Over the past few years, as China has stepped up development of its massive, transnational transport corridor across South Asia, the Belt and Road Initiative, its interest in stability has increased exponentially — and a terrorist like Azhar is inherently destabilizing. JeM mainly focuses its attacks on Indian-administered Kashmir but the group has also been implicated in at least one attack in Pakistan. It also has ties to Al-Qaeda, so Beijing has a strong interest in Azhar being sanctioned.
Furthermore, since JeM claimed responsibility for an attack in February that killed more than 40 members of the Indian security forces in India-administered Kashmir — the deadliest assault in Kashmir, and on Indian forces, in years — the international community has intensified its pressure on Pakistan to rein in the terrorists on its soil. For China, continuing to give Azhar a free pass had become an untenable position.
This all made Beijing’s decision in March to block Azhar’s designation for a fourth time somewhat perplexing. In all likelihood, Beijing felt a need to reassert its support for close ally Pakistan — which also opposed the designation and views Azhar and his organization as useful assets to be deployed against archenemy India — especially at a time when China was making Islamabad nervous by telegraphing its desire to strengthen relations with India.
India might have earned a major diplomatic victory, but the designation itself is purely symbolic.
Another reason for China’s obstructionism in March might have been concern that the resolution proposed at that time did not include enough care in the language it used to appease Pakistan. This time around, Beijing secured the wording that Pakistan wanted. This was probably the clinching factor that persuaded China to take a step back.
Significantly, the final version of the resolution omitted any mention of Azhar’s connection to the Kashmir attack in February, or indeed of Kashmir at all. In effect, the UN did not cite JeM’s role in the February attack, or its role in any attack in Kashmir, as part of its justification for designating him as a terrorist. That is exactly what Pakistan wanted. After all, Islamabad, and the majority of Pakistanis, view attacks on Indian security forces in Indian-administered Kashmir — a region claimed by Pakistan — as rightful resistance, not terrorism.
One more likely reason why China finally let the terror designation happen is pure optics. Beijing had to expend ample political capital in March on behalf of Pakistan when it defied international pressure and refused to let Azhar be listed. There was no way it could do so again, just a few weeks later.
In the end, the move was a no-cost decision for China. It knew that Islamabad would not be unhappy, given the omission of Kashmir from the designation text. And Beijing has earned some much-needed goodwill from the international community at a time when its global image has suffered some major blows, thanks in great part because of how it has treated its Uighur population.
India, of course, is the biggest winner. It has garnered a major diplomatic triumph by getting the world — including New Delhi’s biggest strategic competitor — to rally to its cause and help achieve a longstanding goal.
India’s gain should not be overstated, however. It might have earned a major diplomatic victory, but the designation itself is purely symbolic. Azhar is reportedly quite ill, and a travel ban or arms embargo will not have much of an effect on someone who is probably not very active.
Still, it is important not to lose sight of the bigger picture. After many false starts, the leader of one of the most feared extremist groups in South Asia has been sanctioned by one of the world’s most preeminent international organizations — and one of the world’s biggest powers finally agreed to a major about-face, which allowed it to happen.
• Michael Kugelman is deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.