China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mehmood Qureshi in Islamabad late last week. Photo: Pakistani Foreign Office handout / Anadolu
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, shown here meeting with his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mahmood Qureshi in Islamabad in 2018, discussed the Palestine question in a recent phone call with Qureshi. Photo: Pakistani Foreign Office handout / Anadolu

As expected, China has again gone ahead and vetoed a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution listing Masood Azhar under the UN sanctions regime. This veto is the fourth such “technical hold” on the part of China in the recent past. China’s actions indicate that terrorism is India’s own national problem and the gap between China’s policy on “global” terrorism and its South Asia strategy continues.

Moreover, even the terror strike in Pulwama in Indian-administered Kashmir that cost 41 lives has not been useful in changing the Chinese position on the Indian concerns. It seems that China’s “deeper than ocean” relationship with Pakistan is more significant to its national interests than its reputation as a responsible rising power.

India missed an opportunity during much of the era of the “global war on terror.” The United States coined this phrase in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, to draw a line between its friends and enemies. India stood by and watched as the US used this phrase to chase real and imagined enemies in Afghanistan and in Iraq. During this phase, it treated Pakistan as the most important non-NATO ally and continued to look the other way even as Pakistan’s policy of using terrorism against India continued. Pakistan even got handsome support in cash and kind, and some of those assets were used against India, as showcased again in Pakistan’s retaliatory air strikes on India using US-made F-16s.

This time it is China, and the new rationale is money, via the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is the flagship of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China’s promise of US$62 billion may not change Pakistan’s economic future but it gives it a new sense of self-purpose. To Pakistan, CPEC serves as an example of its ability to benefit from becoming a client state in serving the interests of another great or major power. For China, CPEC is that magic bullet that helps it achieve its interests not only in Pakistan, but also in Afghanistan, the Indian Ocean, Iran and domestically in Xinjiang.

Many in Delhi have believed that India’s support for China’s vice-presidency at the UN Financial Action Task Force (FATF) would help change its mind vis-à-vis Masood Azhar. However, that has clearly not been the case. The best bargain that China would hope to get from India is perhaps India’s intent to join the BRI eventually. However, India is deeply aware of its position as a flag-bearer of the opposition to the BRI on various grounds that seem to be increasingly justified by recent developments in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Uganda and elsewhere in Asia and Africa. So a quid pro quo on this basis is next to impossible.

What would be India’s options, then, in the present scenario? It can be argued here from a realist standpoint that the Chinese policy choice of another veto goes on to justify the Indian pre-emptive strike on the Balakot camp of Jaish-e-Mohammed. From an Indian standpoint, the global system today represents anarchy. The UN process of designating or banning someone as a global terrorist is broken and will only take care of interests of the major powers.

India must be more pragmatic in what it expects the UN to do for itself and is thus justified in using the means at its disposal to counter the problem of cross-border terrorism that it faces. India’s actions, in turn, are products of the options made available to India. Vis-à-vis China, India can extend its argument of reciprocity of core interests and explore various other policy choices as well. Suspending the bilateral “hand-in-hand” anti-terror exercises should be the next logical step. This is clearly a low point in India-China bilateral relations in general.

At another level, India’s relentless pursuits of its national objectives at the UNSC also raise the question of whether India recognizes the criticality of China’s power in South Asia. If that is the case, then it will have to work its way through further diplomatic measures with Beijing. On the other hand, if India’s action was intended to corner China into giving in on the basis of being a “responsible rising power,” then that is also not enough. China was never going to be embarrassed vis-à-vis Pakistan. India is then better off acknowledging the anarchy and pursuing its national interests on its own.

Avinash Godbole

Dr Avinash Godbole is is an assistant professor with O P Jindal Global University, specializing on China studies and international relations. The views expressed here are personal.

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