China considers Pakistan an ‘irreplaceable all-weather friend’. In line with that sentiment Beijing did Islamabad a favour recently by blocking India’s attempt at the UN to place Maulana Masood Azhar of the Jaish-e-Mohammed on the proscribed list of terrorists. Beijing decided to put the request on a technical hold, even though countries like the US, the UK and France reportedly backed India’s move.
This has surprised India, which has termed the decision ‘incomprehensible’ — and while New Delhi is taking this up at a ‘fairly high level’, according to foreign secretary S Jaishankar, the Chinese deputy chief of mission in New Delhi offered a glimpse into Beijing’s thinking on the matter. After suggesting that India and Pakistan address their differences directly since they can’t change their neighbours as one can have a ‘new boyfriend or a girlfriend’, Liu Jinsong stated that ‘China can’t be judge (to decide) who is right and who is wrong’ when it comes to India and Pakistan’s views on Azhar. He reiterated: ‘We can’t stick to one side. We can’t veto, we can’t (be) absent. Only thing we can do is (to put it on a) technical hold’.
Such reasoning is unlikely to satisfy Indian policymakers and public opinion who will expect China to have a more unequivocal stance on terror, particularly since it is a P5 power. China is evidently trying to provide some domestic relief for the Nawaz Sharif government, which is under pressure on both the security and governance fronts. Many in New Delhi will also see in Beijing’s efforts an attempt to appease militants in Pakistan with a view to restraining violent extremism in its own Xinjiang province. Some will also see it as a warning to India not to band together with the US on regional security.
This is a challenging issue to tackle for the ministry of external affairs, which has to balance offended public opinion with wider strategic objectives. So far it has done the right thing by maintaining that it will stick to pursuing the matter at the UN. There are suggestions that India should retaliate against Chinese firms, but that is not advisable. Mr Jaishankar has clarified differences on this issue will not “overflow into other areas”. India is constantly lobbying for more foreign investment to fuel its growth, including from China. India-China trade is worth $71 billion — it would be foolish to undermine the business climate owing to differences on political issues. Both countries have long delinked the two areas — and that is how it should remain.