The debate over ‘good terrorist’ and ‘bad terrorist’ reignited again when China blocked a move by the US, UK and France this month to designate Maulana Masood Azhar, the head of the banned Pakistani terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) as global terrorist under the UNSC 1267 resolution on Al Qaida and its affiliates.
It becomes amply evident from this that China now believes that it has the muscle to stand up alone to the West when it comes to its core interests like Pakistan, South China Sea or South Tibet. It is another matter that it is rather rich to come out in support of known pan-Islamic jihadist Masood Azhar, while Bejing branded Tibetan leader in exile Dalai Lama as a terrorist for allegedly siding with Xinjiang jihadists in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics.
Rabidly anti-Indian, Azhar single-handedly destroyed the Indo-Pakistan rapprochement by instigating the January 2, 2016 Pathankot airbase attack through Jaish jihadists. The note left by the Pathankot attackers that the attack was given a green signal on December 25, 2015 - the day Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an impromptu landing in Lahore while en-route to Delhi from Kabul to meet his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif.
Following his release in a hostage swap at Kandahar during IC-814 hijack on December 31, 1999 after five years in an Indian jail, Masood Azhar with his blood brothers Athar Ibrahim and Rauf Asgar has time and again put India to jihadist sword - from December 13, 2001 Parliament attack to November 29, 2016 attack at Nagrota. Despite being the main accused in the Pathankot attack and with confirmation on the Jaish involvement from the Pakistani National Security Advisor Naseer Janjua, Beijing has been steadfast in its support for the Bhawalpur cleric turned jihadist. While India understands that China wants to limit its influence only to South Asia, the silence of Russia over Masood Azhar is most intriguing and matter of serious concern to New Delhi, and perhaps a signal of changing alignments and definitions.
In the last week of January, Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval went to Moscow to meet his counterpart Nikolai Patrushev in a mission mode to repair the bilateral relationship and expand it beyond military ties. A close aide of President Vladimir Putin, Patrushev invited India to the Afghanistan conference later this month while confirming participation of China, Pakistan and Iran. There was no word on participation by the US, which has been in Kabul since 2001, and Afghanistan itself. Given that India has invested in stabilization of Afghanistan for the past 15 years, it was conveyed to Moscow that participation of the mother country was important if India were to come on the table. On February 7, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that Afghanistan would be one of the participants. However, the congregation of old enemies turned friends over Afghanistan is significant as is the revival of the old good terrorist theory with at least Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan joining hands to engage Taliban in the dialogue for stability in Kabul. The larger argument being that the Taliban should be engaged to keep the growing influence out of Islamic State in so-called Wilayat Khorasan (Afghanistan-Pakistan) in the future. This means that Taliban which ruled Afghanistan with iron hand in 1990s and was responsible for the death of thousands should be brought on the same table as the Ashraf Ghani government to push IS out of South Asia as the latter would destabilize not only Pakistan but already restive Xinjiang province through the famous Wakhan corridor. Rehabilitation of Taliban and protection of Masood Azhar by China takes care of Islamabad’s interests as both are based and prospering in Pakistan. The formation of new Iran-Pakistan-Russia and China axis which is based both on strategic and economic interests, is a matter of serious concern to India. The Modi government cannot live in denial by harping on erstwhile Soviet Union ties to deal with Russia and needs to expand its relationship to a multi-faceted level on an equal basis.
Sino-Indian ties show no signs of improvement barring the huge drop in incursions by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) along the 3,488 kilometer Line of Actual Control (LAC) as the latter makes serious inroads into South Asia due to its far better project implementation strategy. The Chinese blocking of India’s entry into NSG and stopping Azhar from being designated as a terrorist are all for Pakistan, which on its part is allowing Beijing to reach mouth of Persian Gulf through the $46 billion economic corridor from Kashgar in Xinjiang to Gwadar port in Balochistan. Pakistan continues to play the jihadist card in Kashmir or in Indian hinterland deep freezing the ties, while relationship with Tehran is currently shrouded with suspicion and uncertainty.
Under the circumstances, India needs to revive its engagement with South-East Asian countries through shared Muslim heritage and the West Asian powers including Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Israel as these countries are no longer interested in colour of the passports of the engaging country. With Saudi King Salman scheduled to visit India this year and PM Modi travelling to Israel in the last week of June, India should also go for permanent interests rather than permanent allies.