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EFSAS Commentary

Beijing lifting its hold on Masood Azhar interrelated with CPEC, BRI and China's strategic expansionism


On 1 May, China lifted its hold over the proscription of Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) leader Masood Azhar as a global terrorist at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) 1267 Sanctions Committee. China’s decision proved to be of historical significance considering its years-long blockade of blacklisting the Pakistani-based terrorist chief, based on which one would question what the rationale was behind Beijing’s move, which in essence led to the diplomatic victory of its arch-enemy India in the UNSC and placed its “all weather friend” Pakistan under the international spotlight for its sponsorship, protection and support for terrorist groups.

First, the underlying intentions behind China’s long-lived patronage for Masood Azhar need to be examined. Ayjaz Wani, Research Fellow at the New-Delhi based Observer Research Foundation (ORF), explains how JeM alongside with various other terrorist outfits in Pakistan are of strategic importance for China, since they assure Beijing that Islamic extremist ideologies and jihadist movements will not spill over to its restive region of Xinjiang, which is predominantly inhabited by ethnic Muslim Uyghurs. As he argues, “China hoped that its romance with extremist groups in the Af-Pak region would prevent them from supporting Uyghur separatism and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement”.

And indeed, back in 2000, the Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan, Lu Shulin traveled to Afghanistan and met with the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, in order to condition that the Taliban will not allow any Uyghur separatist group to use Taliban’s infrastructure and territory for the purposes of conducting anti-China activities. As Andrew Small, Transatlantic Fellow to the United States (US)-based German Marshall Fund's Asia Programme narrates, the following years witnessed China providing the Taliban with arms and ammunition, as well as largely investing in telecommunication and electro power projects, alongside with constructing dams and electric grids in the country.

Beijing lifting its hold over the proscription of Masood Azhar as a global terrorist delicately overlaps with China’s current ambitious global economic development endeavour called the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), which aims to recreate the ancient Silk Road, connecting China with the Middle East, Africa, Europe, Central- and South Asia. Yelena Biberman, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Skidmore College, New York, Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the South Asia Center at the US-based Atlantic Council and Jared Schwartz, Researcher at the same institution, argue that China’s devil’s bargain with Masood Azhar is mostly due to the high level threat he imposes, which is visible from JeM’s recent attacks in Pathankot, Uri and Pulwama, and which China cannot afford to trigger, considering its multibillion investments in the CPEC project.  

Hence, the question arises, what exactly made China retract from its unwritten agreement and allow the blacklisting of its terrorist sidekick, potentially jeopardizing the security and stability of its Xinjiang province? The answer is simple; the losses would have surmounted the benefits.

In the aftermath of the Pulwama attack, the US, the United Kingdom and France joined forces in the UNSC and supported India’s bid to designate Azhar as a global terrorist. After the expected Chinese blockade on 13 March, the US decided to bring the matter to another dimension; the country said it will circumvent the 1267 Sanctions Committee and call for a resolution at the entire UNSC. Such case scenario would have pressurised China to either comply or veto it, while vetoing would have completely isolate it at the UNSC, exposing it as a terrorist-supporting State and diminishing its credibility and reputation internationally.

Nevertheless, the relationship between China and Pakistan remains stable even after this fiasco, the reason being that Pakistan anyhow had to change its official stance on Azhar if it wished to make any chance of not being blacklisted by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which will conducts its review next month, in June. Yet, it remains to be seen whether any immediate verifiable action will be taken on behalf of Pakistan against Azhar, or the same lip service paid to Hafiz Saeed, the head of Lashkar-e-Taiba, by the Pakistani military establishment will continue.

China cannot afford Pakistan to be placed on FATF’s black list since it has to secure its strategic multibillion investments in the country, thus Beijing tries to maintain its economic, military and diplomatic power over Islamabad. As Anders Corr, political risk analyst, who has previously worked for the US Military intelligence argues, “Pakistan is nearly insolvent, and falling under the economic and political influence of China”.

A recent report by the Pentagon to the US Congress on Chinese military and security developments, published on 2 May argued that “China will seek to establish additional military bases in countries with which it has a longstanding friendly relationship and similar strategic interests, such as Pakistan, and in which there is a precedent for hosting foreign militaries”. The report further stated that, "China's advancement of projects such as the 'One Belt, One Road' (OBOR) initiative, will probably drive military overseas basing through a perceived need to provide security for OBOR projects”.

Although the statement was denounced by both Pakistan and China, Beijing has already undergone similar projects in African countries. In 2017, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy officially launched its first military base overseas in Djibouti, in the geostrategic location of the Horn of Africa, which connects the Mediterranean Sea with the Indian Ocean, and which became the testing ground for China’s military intentions. As a report by the US-based Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) argues, “the proximity between port and base reflects the integration of Chinese commercial and military interests as part of a strategy to project power abroad, even while Beijing maintains the guise of non-interference”.

A less observed example, which exposes China’s shrewd military designs is the country’s BeiDou Satellite Navigation Network, which – as described in EFSAS Article 29-01-2019 – would replace the utilisation of the US GPS satellite navigation system. As Maria Abi-Habib, the South Asian Correspondent for the New York Times claims, “Pakistan is the only other country that has been granted access to the system’s military service, allowing more precise guidance for missiles, ships and aircraft”. She further argues that according to a confidential plan, reviewed by the New York Times, the Pakistani Air Force and Chinese officials have drawn a proposal which states that “a special economic zone under CPEC would be created in Pakistan to produce a new generation of fighter jets. For the first time, navigation systems, radar systems and onboard weapons would be built jointly by the countries at factories in Pakistan”.

The hidden motives behind China’s BRI tend to pervasively penetrate not only into the economies of other countries, but also into various other sectors of their governance, such as military, security and defence, and cultural life.

A chilling example of the Chinese invasion stemming from the construction of the CPEC is the recent uncovering of an illegal channel for illegitimate marriages between Chinese men and young Pakistani Christian girls from under-priviliged families. As the Pakistani law enforcement discloses, the girls have been fraudulently lured into the marriages and often subsequently became subject to abuse. The Pakistani newspaper Dawn reports how “a Chinese man, who came to Pakistan in connection with the execution of a power project in Haveli Bahadar Shah in Jhang, allegedly established a gang for smuggling Pakistani Christian girls to China against Rs1.8 million to Rs3.5 million per girl”. This abhorring example of human trafficking highlights the danger of organised criminal elements infiltrating the country under the pretext of CPEC; the Chinese master plan conceives a picture where the majority of Pakistani socio-economic and cultural sectors could be deeply penetrated by Chinese companies or criminal gangs, putting Islamabad at risk of facing its finances, defence, security and societal structures experiencing a colossal wreck.

The same message should be brought to the cognizance of western countries and act as a wakeup call in order for them to respond to what has been happening in African and Asian States and is currently approaching their backyard. For example, Italy recently became the first G-7 country to join the Chinese “New Silk Road” ambitious project, out of compulsion of being put in a stalemate financial situation with youth unemployment levels reaching 33%, GDP growth rate of only 0.2% for the first two months of 2019 and government debt equivalent to 132.2% of the country's GDP in 2018. He Qinglian, a prominent Chinese author and economist succinctly explains Italy’s decision, “to each country’s respective leader, what’s important is not helping rid the world of tyrannical rule, but solving its own employment problems”, illuminating how China is taking advantage of economically unstable governments. The Italian government might see Chinese investments as a way to get back on its feet by increasing its domestic exports to China in order to boost the economy, yet the country might find itself in the same economic quandary once trying to repay the loans that will accrue.

The Chinese debt-trap diplomacy is no longer restricted to its regional presence; countries across the entire globe should contemplate whether sacrificing national sovereignty, carrying unbearable financial debts and allowing criminal elements to penetrate their territory, is worth the initial fast cash flow.