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Posted at: Feb 11, 2017, 12:34 AM; last updated: Feb 11, 2017, 12:34 AM (IST)

Why does China bat for Masood Azhar ?

Lt Gen (retd) Syed Ata Hasnain
China has prevented JeM chief Masood Azhar from being on the proscribed UN list. This is not out of any love for the ISI's favourite terrorist leader. It is more about the insurance China needs for its $46-billion investment in projects in Pak. China wants its strategy of the trade corridors to be without potential of conflict.
ANYONE who follows strategic issues knows that much can happen in geopolitical and geo-strategic-related affairs which defies rationale. Yet, one thing is clear; nations do not act, engage or support each other unless there is an inherent national interest involved. Seldom do leaderships follow the norm of support based on emotive or historical linkages. A nation as pragmatic and nationalistic as China does not usually make mistakes in this regard as far as the pursuit of national security strategy is concerned. When it comes to China’s denial of support to brand Masood Azhar a UN-designated terrorist, this rationale appears to fly in the face of the Masood Azhar affair. 

A few facts, to glean the background may be required. Following the attack on the US embassies in Nairobi and Darussalam by the Al-Qaida and other associated groups, the Security Council passed Resolution 1267 or 1267 Regime, in 1999. This Resolution primarily looks at non-kinetic ways of forcing entities, terror groups or their leaders to be proscribed and pressurised with cooperation between members of the UN. It requires unanimity of the Security Council to be brought into effect against any of the above. India has been attempting to have Masood Azhar, the infamous JeM chief proscribed under this but China comes to Pakistan's support each time in denying unanimous approval of the UNSC which is mandatory. India has criticised the UNSC decision, stating that, “Its working methods, based on the principles of unanimity and anonymity, is leading the Committee to adopt a selective approach to combating terrorism.” JeM was listed under 1267 Regime as far back as 2001 for its links to the Al-Qaida but labelling eludes Masood Azhar because of China which is the only nation in the UNSC which is preventing this. Is it in China's national interest to do the above? First and foremost, to put the question differently, is anything in the interest of India and not that of Pakistan automatically in China’s national interest? China's strategic academic community does not think so because there has emanated no strident defence of China's stance except from the usual media commentaries. The latest Global Times of China states, “Chinese analysts said they believe India did not provide enough evidence to support its proposals, as evidence is required not only because of the need to maintain the UN's authority, but also because of the complexities in the region”. This stance can continue forever.

The conclusions should be obvious. China considers its relationship with Pakistan deeply strategic. There have been times China has tried to project a degree of neutrality between India and Pakistan in matters concerning even Jammu and Kashmir. Since the last two years its stance has hardened irrationally in favour of Pakistan. Two things seem to have dictated this. First, is the turn in the Indo-US relationship, which progressively showed emergence of greater strategic understanding and was perceived by China as essentially aimed at it. The larger narrative of India's outreach to Japan and Vietnam also appears to have unnerved China. Second is the indirect effect of the New Great Game in Asia. 

It is not the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) alone which is binding China to Pakistan in a more determined way. The CPEC is just a sub-arm of the larger strategy of outreach by China to go well beyond its borders in order to sustain its growth rate. It is also designed to help develop the backward regions within its territories, including the troubled region of Xinjiang. 

In the South-East Asian and East-Asia region in order to have a control over the ocean disputes, China has reached out to Philippines, Laos and Cambodia. It also has the presence of North Korea as a foil should things not go as per plan. In its strategy towards its western boundaries it is Russia who it needs and the relationship has strengthened considerably. Oil and gas from Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are reasonably guaranteed but insufficient to meet its voracious needs.  Almost 80 per cent of its energy needs are still supplied through the sea lines of communication (SLsOC) which are vulnerable in the event of larger conflict. The only country which can facilitate both, outreach for trade and transportation of energy needs through the continental routes is Pakistan. This realisation has struck a deeper chord in China over the last two years as the US moved closer to its pivot and rebalancing strategy under former President Obama. Donald Trump's approach is still confused and unclear. He does not yet know how he will deal with China. He wishes to be aggressive on the South China Sea dispute and does not wish to leave Afghanistan to the control of Pakistan and the ISI to work with the Taliban and the Haqqanis. So the US may well marginally enhance its presence in Afghanistan. That is not good news for China that wants its strategy of the trade corridors to be without potential of conflict and opposition. 

So, Pakistan's strategic importance goes up several notches. As it is, even the casual eye can gauge that without any other factor; just its geographic location is God's greatest gift to Pakistan. It controls access to the ocean and reverse access to the heart of Asia. It provides the US its only viable logistics route to Afghanistan. China's future development of the western peripheral regions is dependent on the development of the trade corridors through the zone of the New Great Game. In the latter, it is not infrastructure alone but the potential of ideology being infused as a weapon here. The entire New Great Game, which is all about extension of influence to facilitate trade corridors, can be hamstrung by the infusion of Islamic radicalism. The infrastructure will remain unsafe and millions of dollars worth of security systems will have to be deployed to safeguard it. Pakistan's reputation as the core centre of radical Islam precedes it each time. 

Through the 1980s, the US and Saudi Arabia defeated the former Soviet Union with the assistance of Pakistan and its ISI. It has tied down India considerably in the state of Jammu and Kashmir and potentially it holds the key to the security of the corridors in the New Great Game zone. All this is through the networks it controls. The extent to which friendly terrorists can assist Pakistan in its future strategy has been insufficiently realised by India. 

China has the full measure of appreciation of what Pakistan can and cannot do. The investment in Masood Azhar is not for any love for the ISI's favorite terrorist leader but due to sheer prudence about the insurance China needs for the $46 billion and much more that will eventually be sunk into these projects.

India's diplomatic efforts may not yet succeed in this sphere but there is no option but to continue these as China is isolated in the UNSC and Pakistan too is feeling the heat. Sometimes narrow diplomatic defeats can actually be converted to eventual victories. That is, only if you understand the nuances.

The writer is a former GOC of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps. He is now associated with the Vivekanand International Foundation.


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