China’s vulnerability to terrorism behind its support for Azhar ban
Undoubtedly, India’s relentless and intense diplomacy coupled with international pressure has succeeded in pushing China to designate Masood Azhar as a UN proscribed terrorist. Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale’s visit to China on 21-22 April and his presentation of an exhaustive dossier showing Azhar as a terrorist finally caused China to relent. This is also the official rationale given by the Chinese foreign ministry for ending its intransigence on this issue. However, it was the spread of terrorism in South Asia, with the terror attacks in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, that acted as a last straw. In other words, it is neither the Wuhan spirit nor India’s zero tolerance on terrorism but China’s own vulnerability to terror that caused Beijing to ultimately take on board New Delhi’s concerns on terrorism.
The timing of China’s lifting of its technical hold leading to Azhar’s designation as a global terrorist is telling. Post-Pulwama, China had been the only country that did not condemn the terror attack. Rather, for the fourth time, it had blocked the proposal put forward by the US, the UK and France for banning Azhar on the pretext of insufficient information, thus, clearly standing in support of its all-weather friend, Pakistan. Further, China’s state-run newspaper chided India for blaming Pakistan for Pulwama and China for blocking the Azhar ban. But the Islamic State (IS) terror strike on Sri Lanka served as a wakeup call for China. Though it is striking to note that when leaders from India, US, UK Russia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal expressed shock and condemnation over the deadly blasts at churches and hotels, China maintained a palpable silence. Of course, it could not have said much when its position on similar terror strikes on India have always been muted, thereby demonstrating its loyalty to Pakistan. But more significantly, China’s silence points to its approach towards terrorism which is critically linked to Uighur separatism in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region.
So far, China has addressed the terrorism issue by adopting a two-fold policy. One, internally, it has adopted the ‘Strike Hard’ campaign since the 2000s to repress and eliminate the Uighur separatists. Since 2017, this policy has acquired a strikingly virulent form with the Chinese government detaining thousands of Uighurs in internment camps and indoctrinating them to wean them away from the Islamic faith. Coupled with this, China has launched a massive surveillance-based database, the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), to monitor Muslims in Xinjiang. Second, externally, China has enlisted the support of Pakistan to rein in not only the Uighurs but Pakistan’s own radical forces. The July 2007 Red Mosque incident is one such example when the Musharraf government acted at the behest of China to crack down on Pakistani radicals. Further, in 2010, there were reports of the presence of up to 11,000 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) to counter Islamic radicals based in FATA conducting cross-border terrorist operations in Xinjiang. Besides, through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, China has institutionally tried to address the issue of terrorism. There are as many as ten legal documents that outline the principles of anti-terrorism cooperation among member states. Plus, an anti-terror centre was established in Bishkek to fight what China calls the three evils of terrorism, separatism and extremism. Moreover, in the post-9/11 era, taking advantage of the global war on terror, China has projected Uighur separatism as terrorism and, in 2002, got the US treasury department to list the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as a terrorist organization. Yet, the Uighur threat has remained unabated. In fact, China can no longer claim immunity to terror attacks.
In 2006, one of the splinter groups of the ETIM, the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), was formed by Uighurs who had fled to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 1990s. In 2008, this group claimed responsibility for carrying out deadly attacks in Shanghai and Kunming. Further, a study by the European Council on Foreign Relations contends that earlier the Al-Qaeda had prohibited attacks targeting China and Chinese interests since it viewed US-China rivalry as a strategic opportunity. But now the Islamic State has called on its affiliates to ‘take revenge’ against China for carrying out atrocities in Xinjiang. Thus, China no longer enjoys the restraint exercised by Al-Qaeda and its associates. There are even reports of some 200 Uighurs joining the ranks of the Islamic State and other Jihadi organizations in Syria and Iraq.
In this context, the terror attack in Sri Lanka, which the IS has claimed responsibility for, is an alarming sign. China had so long controlled the menace of terrorism within its borders by joining hands with Pakistan and ignoring India’s sovereignty and security concerns. The spread of Islamic terrorism to Sri Lanka not only narrows the room for China to ignore terrorism in the region but also threatens to affect its BRI projects in that country. In fact, the IS has threatened to carry out further attacks in India and Bangladesh. This spread of instability bodes ill for the success of the Belt and Road Initiative, which is President Xi Jinping’s dream project.
It is important to note that the success of BRI is critical to China’s own economic growth and fulfilment of its two centenary goals: establishing a prosperous and well-off society by 2022 and joining the ranks of developed nations by 2050. This twin success, in turn, is fundamental to bolstering party legitimacy. In other words, the economic rationale far outweighs the geopolitical basis of the BRI. In this regard, the recently concluded second BRI summit in Beijing saw reduced enthusiasm among countries across the world. China is increasingly confronting criticism about its debt-trap diplomacy. It failed to woo India’s participation for the second consecutive time. Of the eight SAARC countries, only Nepal and Pakistan sent their heads of state to Beijing. Sri Lanka, which had participated in the 2017 summit, skipped it this year. The same was the case with Turkey, which chose not to attend on the grounds of China’s policy towards the Uighurs. At this juncture, China could ill-afford to confront international isolation on the Azhar ban issue.
Given the critical link between terrorism and the BRI, China realised the futility of its opposition to Azhar being designated as a global terrorist. This pragmatism on the part of the Chinese leadership has not only ended the spectre of China’s international isolation but also raised the prospects of restoring the Wuhan spirit. New Delhi should not be hoodwinked into thinking that Beijing has given up its Pakistan card against India. China’s decision was guided by a realistic assessment of its national interest.