Terrorist Azhar's blacklisting a turning point in South Asia's politics?
For a decade Masood Azhar was cast as the touchstone of Pakistan-China friendship and flag-bearer in a proxy war on India. That finally ended on Wednesday when Beijing wilted under growing international pressure and revulsion towards terrorism and agreed to the United Nations Security Council sanctions committee branding him the terrorist he is. China’s retreat from providing international protection for the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) chief and his patron Islamabad marks a milestone in the political and diplomatic war on terror with potential reverberations beyond the subcontinent.
Totally isolating them, none of the other 191 other members of the UN – including some who advocate “your-terrorist-is-my-freedom-fighter” policy in other cases – had joined Pakistan and China in backing Azhar. India’s Permanent Representative Syed Akbaruddin said that India’s persistent “subterranean” diplomacy helped achieve this.
Now the next milestone in the political and diplomatic war on terror – it is still only that, and not an all out war – will be a global one if that consensus against terrorism can be extended to the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism that was proposed by India in 1996. Work on it has been stuck on the most basic issue – defining terrorism, with some making a false distinction between “freedom-fighters” and terrorists. It escapes them that the mark of terrorism is the method – wanton killing of civilians including children – and not the ideology.
Arriving on a consensus on the convention is the challenge before Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative Rohan Perera who heads the UN’s working group on eliminating international terrorism.
China’s turnabout, despite its words of sympathy for Islamabad, may force Pakistan to take a long-overdue inward look at its policy of classifying terrorists as bad and good – those creating mayhem within the country and those in India.
That schizophrenic policy has taken a toll on Pakistan, whose diplomats like to point out that their country has suffered the most from Islamist terror. Yet Islamabad – or specifically its military overlord – was willing to pay the price to keep its army of proxies.
For the world, that was too high a price.
Pakistan’s strategic doctrine that its nuclear weapons provided immunity against Indian retaliation against its war by terror was tested in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack in February that killed more than 40 Central Reserve Police Force personnel.
While that attack itself stung the world, the Indian air retaliation against terror camps and Pakistan’s counter attack in which an Indian plane was downed showed the international community how fragile the situation is.
China had reluctantly gone along with a Security Council press statement condemning the Pulwama attack, which was short of a formal resolution, and it was expected that it might relent on Azhar. But it vetoed in March for the fourth time his listing as a terrorist by the sanctions committee that deals with al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and their affiliates.
That re-energised the United States, Britain and France to pursue the option of having the Security Council itself declare him a terrorist under sanctions of financial freeze and travel ban. They circulated a US draft resolution and lobbied hard, with Washington declaring it will utilise all available resources. If that resolution were to come up, China would have had to publicly veto it and defend Azhar, which probably gave it pause.
China had claimed that it was not convinced by the evidence that Azhar was connected to terrorism, but suddenly it said the evidence it rejected was now convincing.
Besides its ties with India, the Afghanistan developments were another incentive for Washington. With negotiations taking place with the Taliban for a settlement, the US would want a complete wind down of terrorism in the region to protect Afghanistan, and also to ensure that Pakistan does not turn its other proxies fighting Afghanistan towards India.
As for China, it was time to recognise its own risks. It has an Islamist terror problem in the Uyghur region and beyond, and its support to JeM and Azhar was not buying it goodwill with them. As its Belt and Road initiative advances, Beijing will have to ensure the safety of its multi-billion-dollar investments along it, while ensuring that pan-Islamist terror does not ply the road.
Already, China has faced terror attacks in Pakistan, where its workers and resources have been targeted and even its consulate in Karachi attacked last year. Under these circumstances, it had to come out openly against all forms of terrorism if it were to credibly protect its investments elsewhere and even itself. This was the moment for it.
Even afar in Sri Lanka, where it has billions invested and loaned, China saw Islamist terrorism’s potential to disrupt the island’s stability with consequences for it.And no doubt, the Sri Lanka suicide bomb massacres about a fortnight ago added to international community’s pressure on China.
Sanctions committee chair Dian Triansyah Djani, a soft-spoken Indonesian diplomat with a self-deprecating sense of humor, was able to deftly coalesce these developments into a consensus against Azhar.
On the subcontinent, Pakistan now faces the stark choice of complying with the sanctions against Azhar – and those imposed earlier on JeM and Laskhar-e-Tayyiba – or continuing to defy international opinion, perhaps by even spawning new proxies. Perhaps if China has had a true change of heart, it could move Islamabad away from the proxy war. Then in a post-election India there may be an opportunity for a fresh start having met New Delhi’s prime condition of abandoning terrorism.