Indian diplomacy is likely to swim against a powerful geopolitical tide as China’s friendship with Pakistan stands in the way of Beijing cooperating meaningfully with New Delhi in tackling terrorism in South Asia. As the world seems ever more divided on the issue of terrorism, India faces a growing challenge of securing its interests as well as citizens from being harmed by both state and nonstate actors from across the border.
Beijing’s outrageous decision to veto India’s proposal to ban Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) chief Masood Azhar at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in December 2016 has once again exposed the hypocrisy in China’s counter-terrorism enterprise, while adding fresh tensions in the bilateral relations between India and China. When India asked “China to hear the voice of the world, not just voice of India on terrorism” and mocked China for adopting “double standards in the fight against terrorism, the Chinese side claimed that Beijing adopted a ‘just, objective and professional’ attitude in deciding the issue of Azhar.
China’s views on terrorism
China views terrorism, separatism and extremism as posing potential threats to a wide range of national security interests that include social stability, national unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity. Terrorist incidents have risen significantly in China. While most of these incidents took place in restive Xinjiang region, major cities such as Beijing, Kunming, and Guangzhou have also suffered attacks in the past few years. China’s counter-terrorism efforts presently focus mainly on its Muslim ethnic Uighur population in Xinjiang region. China’s official use of the term ‘terrorist’ seems reserved almost exclusively for describing those tied to Xinjiang. However, some Chinese scholars and government-affiliated experts have also characterized the riots among ethnic Tibetans as terrorism.
China’s primary concern is the prevailing instability and lawlessness around its periphery. The proximity of these locations to Xinjiang has given rise to fears that Uighur separatists could use these areas as launchpads for attacks against China or connect with Islamic radicals already operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan which are the primary focus of Beijing’s efforts in this regard. China has leaned heavily on Pakistan to do more to combat the activities of the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Party (ETIP), both of which operate in Pakistan’s tribal areas, where offshoots of Taliban and al-Qaeda provide training and monetary support to Uyghur Jihadists. China sees the Pakistan army as an important partner in keeping weapons and trained Jihadists from crossing the boundary.
Indo-China joint counter-terrorism
India and China have engaged in joint counter-terrorism exercises. In May 2015, when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited China, both the countries “reiterated their strong condemnation of and resolute opposition to terrorism in all its forms and manifestations and committed themselves to cooperate on counter-terrorism. They agreed that there is no justification for terrorism and urged all countries and entities to work sincerely to disrupt terrorist networks and their financing, and stop cross-border movement of terrorists”. In November 2015, India and China issued a joint statement in which they “agreed to enhance cooperation in combating international terrorism through (a) exchanging information on terrorist activities, terrorist groups and their linkages; (b) exchanging experiences on anti-hijacking, hostage situations and other terrorism related crimes; (c) coordinating positions on anti-terrorism endeavors at regional and multilateral levels and supporting each other.”
Even as China played hide and seek with India on the issue of Masood Azhar, New Delhi went ahead with a key counter-terror dialogue in Beijing in September 2016. R N Ravi, Chairman of Joint Intelligence Committee of India and Wang Yongqing, Secretary General of Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission of China, held “in-depth discussions on enhancing cooperation in counter-terrorism and security and on measures to jointly deal with security threats and reached important consensus in this regard.”
China’s double standards
China seeks regional and global support for targeting Uighur Islamists but refrains from backing India’s efforts to weaken the terror groups like the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), who are considered as Pakistani army’s ‘strategic assets’ to wage asymmetric war against India. This selective characterization poses several challenges for the success of counter-terrorism efforts in South Asia. The China-Pakistan nexus extends to shielding Pakistani terrorism at the UN as India’s attempts to get the global body to act against Pakistan-based terrorist leaders have been frustrated by Chinese intransigence.
India’s application to the UNSC Sanctions Committee, also known as 1267 Committee, to designate Jaish-e-Mohammed chief, Masood Azhar, as terrorist has been repeatedly rejected because of China’s veto. China is the only country in the UNSC to oppose Masood Azhar’s inclusion in a UN blacklist of terrorist individuals, entities, organizations and groups. Although, Beijing has also blocked New Delhi’s proposals on several occasions at the UNSC to designate Hizbul Mujahedeen chief Syed Salahuddin and Abdul Rehman Makki and Azam Cheema of the Lashkar-e-Taiba as terrorists, Masood Azhar’s case is different from all of these because of incontrovertible evidence of his complicity in several notorious terrorist attacks in India including sensational Parliament attack and the Pathankot air base attack. Even a former Chinese diplomat who had once served in India has struck a different note and expressed his disapproval of China’s official policy of blocking India’s bid to get Masood Azhar branded as global terrorist. Referring to Indian evidence furnished against Azhar in Pathankot terror attack, Mao Siwei has recently written on social media that “I deeply feel that now is the time China should take India’s complaint as an opportunity to seriously study and adjust the position, get rid of the passive diplomatic situation, on the listing of JeM chief in the (UN) 1267 list.”
China has a long history of supporting Pakistan in the UN whenever India has brought up the matter of Pakistan-sponsored terrorists. Beijing’s position on Azhar and other Pakistani terrorists is a logical corollary of its friendship with Islamabad. China’s double standards reinforce the fact that Indo-China counter-terrorism cooperation is rhetorical, with no real substance in it.
Russian pivot to Pakistan
China is investing heavily in Pakistan as part of its One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, hence its willingness to shield Masood Azhar. But the trickiest development has been Russia’s surprising pivot to Pakistan. As a strategic fallout of growing bonhomie between India and the US, and deteriorating ties between Moscow and Washington, the ill-timed Russian ambivalence on Pakistan-supported terrorism has not only come to hurt India’s counter-terrorism efforts but also has emboldened Pakistan further. Immediately after the Uri terror attack, Russia ignored India’s protests and conducted its first-ever joint exercises with Pakistani Special Forces. At the BRICS summit in October 2016 and the Heart of Asia conference in December 2016, it was Moscow-Beijing combine that saved Pakistan from being criticized and sidelined on the issue of cross-border terrorism. Russian envoy went to the extent of advising India not to use “multilateral forums for bilateral issues.”
With both Moscow and Beijing throwing their weight behind Pakistan’s push for greater role in Afghan peace process and Russia showing willingness to become a partner in China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects in Pakistan, China will gravitate decisively toward a tighter embrace with Pakistan. Paramount among Beijing’s motives is the notion that Pakistan is essential to enhance China’s geo-strategic position in the region. The Chinese government is content with Pakistan’s level of cooperation on counterterrorism. But the biggest question is: will China’s efforts to outsource its war on terrorism succeed? Praveen Swami, India’s noted security expert, writes: “For decades, the US followed counter-terrorism policies identical to those Beijing now seeks to adopt. The support Washington provided to repressive regimes in West Asia ended up legitimizing the violent Islamism it was meant to curb. The Pakistan army’s use of jihadi proxies led to the creation of infrastructure used against the West. The lesson is simple: Policies guided by tactical needs, with no strategic framework, lead inexorably toward defeat.”
It has not been easy for China to navigate the relationship “with a country that is both the greatest source of China’s terrorist threat and the crucial partner in combating it”, as Andrew Small has asserted in his book, The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics. As long as Pakistan’s security establishment continues to play a double game of pretending to fight terrorism, but in reality furthering its own strategic agenda in Afghanistan by supporting the Taliban and in Kashmir by supporting the JeM and the LeT, China’s national security interests can never be aligned with those of Pakistan.
Unfortunately, it would most likely take a major terrorist attack inside China with links to Pakistan to force a change in current Chinese policy. Until that moment comes however, China’s double standards in countering terrorism will continue to cost many innocent lives in South Asia as well as undermine the security and stability Afghanistan. These already high costs further magnify the mounting perils emerging from Pakistan’s unrelenting terrorism against India and its other neighbors, not to mention the larger risks to its own security. That Xi Jinping’s China, Islamabad’s biggest benefactor and stakeholder, is reluctant to do much about these perils prolongs the bloodshed and misery in South Asia.