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Why China decided to give in on Masood Azhar

This is not where China would like to be, facing global opprobrium over its predatory belt and road initiative and badly outmatched in a trade war with the United States: a pretender, in other words, not a true global power

columns Updated: May 10, 2019 19:34 IST
Yahswant Raj
Yahswant Raj
Hindustan Times
China’s final and eventual climbdown on Masood Azhar, the Jaish-e-Mohammad founder and leader, earlier this month may have looked tortured and painful given its long and close relationship with Pakistan, the terrorist’s chief benefactor and puppeteer(AFP)

China’s final and eventual climbdown on Masood Azhar, the Jaish-e-Mohammad founder and leader, earlier this month may have looked tortured and painful given its long and close relationship with Pakistan, the terrorist’s chief benefactor and puppeteer. But to western diplomats and negotiators who had knocked heads with Chinese counterparts for years on the issue, Beijing had somehow seemed more flexible and more willing than ever this time, and had looked eager to get to a yes.

China signalled its intentions by getting out of the way of the UN Security Council’s press statement condemning the Pulwama attack, which set up the Azhar designation. That was when western negotiators first noticed China’s new willingness and a certain weariness with supporting Pakistan on something that had become increasingly untenable — supporting a terrorist who had the blood of countless innocents on his hands.

Though it wasn’t going to be easy from there to the finishing line, western diplomats were increasingly confident that China would sign on if it could get the language right in a compromise deal, as first reported by Hindustan Times in the middle of March; China actually did on May 1.

Beijing’s official explanation for agreeing to the listing has been pitifully inadequate and lacking in details, other than that it had agreed only to a “revised” and “re-submitted” proposal underlining the change in language that it had demanded as a condition. Western power compiled, and readily. Their negotiators were committed to getting an outcome no matter what — designating Azhar, as agreed by all the stakeholders, India and the three western powers who had moved and driven the designation proposal, the United States, France and the United Kingdom.

So, what changed for China?

Members of Chinese think tanks, experts and former diplomats have some theories. One, it was a nod to a growing world consensus on counterterrorism. Two, as one diplomat said, China had only considered Pakistan’s position on the issue in the past and now felt compelled to balance it with that of India’s and the broader international community. Three, it was a diplomatic concession to India, And, four, China has relented to help the situation on the subcontinent and foster better ties among members of the China-led regional security bloc, Shanghai Cooperation Organization (India and Pakistan are late entrants, joining founding members China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakstan).

We will never know the real story unless someone from the Chinese decision-making process, or close to it, busts the opaqueness that surrounds most such developments by defecting, or, on rare occasions, leaking. But will they remember enough to write or talk about an episode that is hardly likely to be more than a footnote in history?

There is also a theory that is worth considering because US secretary of state Mike Pompeo (a former CIA director) took a shot at it without acknowledging it. Its basic premise is that China does not know what to do with Islamic terrorism. As Pompeo’s diplomats piled on pressure on China with an ultimatum that it should either drop its resistance or go before the Security Council, unlike the anonymity mandated by rules governing proceedings of the 1267 sanctions committee, and defend its defence of a terrorist by May 1, Pompeo tweeted on March 28, “The world cannot afford China’s shameful hypocrisy toward Muslims. On one hand, China abuses more than a million Muslims at home, but on the other it protects violent Islamic terrorist groups from sanctions at the UN.” It was a first such direct hit on China’s Muslim problem from a cabinet-rank US official.

Western powers appeared to have been playing on an emerging vulnerability they had spotted in the Great Wall of China: its mounting concern about Islamic terrorism and its own inability to deal with it. Beijing has bungled so far by throwing an estimated one to two million of its Muslim citizens into internment facilities that have been compared to Nazi concentration camps. And that is not where China would like to be, facing global opprobrium over its predatory belt and road initiative and badly outmatched in a trade war with the United States: a pretender, in other words, not a true global power.

yashwant.raj@hindustantimes.com

First Published: May 10, 2019 19:34 IST