To give credit to US for China’s Azhar turnaround is to belittle decisive effect of India’s own diplomacy, led by PM Modi and carried forward by FS Vijay Gokhale.
It must be said that the United States is a great country to visit. The people are friendly, and a surprisingly large number of them appear to have a working knowledge of English, a language that India’s leaders from Mahatma Gandhi to Amit Shah have worked hard to eliminate from the country. However, to give credit to the US administration for China’s Masood Azhar turnaround makes little sense, for such a view is to belittle the decisive effect of India’s own diplomacy, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and carried forward by Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale. Their discussions with Chinese policymakers from Xi Jinping on down have—at long last—resulted in Beijing joining the global coalition against terror by removing the GHQ Rawalpindi-inspired block that it had first imposed ten years ago on UN Security Council efforts at designating Masood Azhar as a global terrorist. Surprisingly, once news about the impending unblocking of the Azhar hold started to disseminate, a senior official in the Modi government briefed favoured scribes that the credit for such a change of heart was due to “pressure from the US, UK and France” on Beijing. This columnist was in Beijing in March, when an earlier international effort at getting Azhar designated a terrorist was taking place. It became clear that the Chinese leadership had by then already reached the conclusion that abiding by the wishes of GHQ Rawalpindi and shielding their terror asset would be against the interests of the Chinese people, who would benefit greatly from warmer ties with India, especially in matters relating to the economy. What prevented China from doing the right thing in March was a flurry of statements from London, Paris and Washington that demanded Beijing follow their example and place Azhar on the global terror list. From the time of the “Unequal Treaties” signed by China in the 19th and 20th centuries (and which caused the fall of the Qing dynasty), the Chinese have been sensitive to being seen as bowing to outside pressure, just as another country ravaged by colonial oppression, India, has been. Beijing’s pro-GHQ lobby (especially within the PLA) argued that unblocking the hold on Azhar’s UNSC designation as a terrorist would be construed as China bowing to pressure from the US, the UK and France, and hence should be avoided. Thanks to the very public intervention of these capitals, inadvertently assisted by a senior Indian official who asked his Chinese interlocutors to “follow the US and France” in the matter of Azhar, the hold was reaffirmed rather than abandoned. This caused immense damage to China’s goodwill in India, as it was seen as protecting the perpetrators of the Pulwama outrage. After that disappointing decision, those who had for several months informally and outside government worked to convince the Chinese to move away from reflexive support to GHQ Rawalpindi’s machinations were promised that the March 2019 retention of the hold would be the last time that China would act in such a manner. What worked in favour of GHQ was that—apart from Washington, London and Paris—a senior Indian official had warned the Chinese side that they must unblock the hold as “the US, UK and France are pressing for it and China should follow their example”. The GHQ lobby within Beijing argued that if the block was lifted during the March deliberations of the UNSC Al Qaeda-ISIS sanctions committee, it would be seen as having been done under western pressure. Their ploy worked, and the block continued till a few days ago, when Xi Jinping finally took heed to the need for better relations with India and ordered that it be lifted.
A murderer may have killed dozens of people—as A.B. Vajpayee’s freed prisoner Masood Azhar has—and yet be hanged for only a few of them. That matters little, for a hanging is a hanging. What is important is not whether Kashmir was mentioned but that Azhar has now been certified by the UNSC as a global terrorist, so that the continuation of cosy relations between him and GHQ Rawalpindi could constitute a ground for placing Pakistan on Black List of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) against terror funding. A FATF meeting takes place towards the close of next month, and there is substantial justification for placing Pakistan on the FATF Black List. This ought to be a priority for the government that will be elected by voters to power in India on 23 May 2019, whether it be led by the BJP or by any other party. This will be the last FATF meeting before China takes over the chairmanship, and deft diplomacy will be needed between Delhi and Beijing to ensure a blacklisting. This would be more effective in blocking terror funding masterminded from within Pakistan than what the world has witnessed so far.
There are several reasons why Xi Jinping could once more intervene in the FATF on the side of those fighting terror, rather than permit Chinese policy to remain subservient to GHQ Rawalpindi’s demands. Most of these are economic. Huawei, for example, would find India probably its biggest 5G market once the company ensures credible security assurances and charges rates that are far more attractive than its nearest competitor. Once differences relating to the CPEC are resolved bilaterally, a China India Economic Corridor (CIEC) could be constructed that could end in Sri Lanka, a road that would be vastly profitable rather than drain money from the Chinese exchequer as projects in Pakistan are doing. The greater the commercial engagement between India and China, the sooner can the boundary dispute get resolved according to the Mao-Zhou formula that had unfortunately been rejected by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1960 and not fully examined by Rajiv Gandhi in 1988 because of the impending 1989 Lok Sabha polls. After the traverse through a long, dark tunnel in Sino-Indian relations, the Modi-Xi breakthrough over Azhar indicates that light, howsoever faint, has finally become visible in relations between two countries that together have over 2.5 billion people.