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EFSAS Commentary

China emerges as the Achilles heel of global counter terrorism efforts at UNSC


China, for the fourth time in the last ten years, blocked a proposal on 13 March that had been moved jointly by France, the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US) to designate Masood Azhar, the chief of the terrorist organization Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), as a global terrorist under the 1267 Al Qaeda Sanctions Committee of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Through the technical hold that China placed on the proposal moved by the three countries on 27 February in the immediate aftermath of the Pulwama terrorist attack that the JeM had claimed responsibility for, and which threatened to escalate into a full blown war between nuclear neighbours India and Pakistan, China has left little doubt about the abject disregard it has for the global counter terrorist regime, or even the processes of the UN for that matter. For a country that the UN says has placed as many as a million of its own citizens – Uighurs and other Muslims – against their will in "reeducation" camps that have been widely described as "21st century concentration camps", with the stated purpose of fighting terrorism and eradicating extremism, China’s blocking of an internationally acknowledged global terrorist from designation reeks strongly of its shallow self-interests trumping propriety and concord.

China had earlier blocked Indian proposals to designate Azhar in 2009, shortly after the November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, and in 2016 after the Pathankot terrorist attack. On both these occasions China hinted that it had reservations over India trying to browbeat Pakistan, China’s self-proclaimed all-weather friend, through the move. The situation in 2017, however, was different. The proposal was moved by France, the UK and the US and this elevated the issue of Azhar’s designation to one that fell squarely within the realms of the global fight against terror. Even this did not persuade China enough to call a terrorist a terrorist. The 27 February proposal was even more inclusive. Exasperated at the JeM being allowed by Pakistan, and through extension China, to carry out with impunity callous terrorist attacks such as the one at Pulwama in which 44 Indian paramilitary personnel were killed, the same three countries once again moved the proposal. In addition, 10 other countries signed in as co-sponsors. These included Germany, Poland, Belgium and Equatorial Guinea, all non-permanent UNSC members, and Japan, Australia, Italy, Bangladesh, the Maldives and Bhutan. Not even this wide geographical alignment could convince China, nor could the fact that the proposal underlined Azhar’s credentials as a global terrorist and asserted that he was also a former leader of the terrorist group Harkat-ul-Mujahadin and he had given a call to volunteers to join the fight against western forces in Afghanistan. It also stressed that the JeM had claimed responsibility for the Pulwama suicide attack.

In the days leading up to the 13 March deadline for objecting to the proposed designation, China had hinted at the direction it would veer towards. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang on 11 March said that "The UN Security Council and its subsidiary bodies are run on strict rules. We already stressed China's position on the listing of terrorist organizations and individuals in the UN Security Council 1267 Committee on many occasions". He added on 13 March that "China will continue to adopt responsible attitude and participate in the deliberations in the UNSC 1267 Committee. I want to say that China always adopts a responsible attitude, engage in consultations with various parties and properly deal with this issue. The discussions, I want to say must follow the rules and procedures of the relevant bodies and only the solution that is acceptable to all sides is conducive for resolving the issue". After putting the technical hold on the proposal that all but ensures that it will gather dust over the next six months, Lu Kang on 14 March said that “China conducts thorough and in-depth assessment of these applications and we still need more time, so that is why we put forward the technical hold”, and that “China's stand is in line with the rules, procedures of the UN sanctions committee. The technical hold is to ensure that China has enough time to study the matter.

China’s conduct on this matter at the UNSC has by no means and at no time been “responsible”; in reality it has been quite the opposite. Its latest feeble excuse that it still needs more time to assess whether the individual the rest of the world sees as a global terrorist is one or not is flabbergasting. If the whole of the last decade since India first proposed Azhar’s designation in 2009 has not been enough for China to “study the matter, not even the eternal optimist would believe that the next six months would.

The broader implications of such transgression by China have not been lost on the international community. The US, especially, has been scathing in its criticism. Just hours prior to China’s technical hold, State Department Deputy Spokesperson Robert Palladino stressed that Azhar met the criteria to designate him a global terrorist, and that "The United States and China share a mutual interest in achieving regional stability and peace, and that a failure to designate Azhar would run counter to this goal". A spokesperson of the US Embassy in New Delhi added on 14 March that "Our views on Jaish-e-Mohammed (JEM) and its founder Masood Azhar are well known. JeM is a United Nations-designated terrorist group. Azhar is the founder and the leader of JeM, and he clearly meets the criteria for designation by the United Nations". The most mordant remarks came from a US diplomat at the UNSC who was quoted widely in the media as saying that "Pakistan has often depended on China to protect it from the listing of Pakistan-based terrorist groups and individuals in the UN 1267 Sanctions Committee. This is the fourth time that China has placed a hold on this listing. If China is serious about these goals, it should not protect terrorists from Pakistan or any other country from being held accountable to the Council. China should not prevent the Committee from doing the job the Security Council has entrusted it to do. If China continues to block this designation, responsible member States may be forced to pursue other actions at the Security Council. It shouldn't have to come to that".

India responded to the blocking by saying that "We are disappointed by this outcome. This has prevented action by the international community to designate the leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed, a proscribed and active terrorist organization which has claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack in Jammu and Kashmir on 14 February 2019". It also pledged to "continue to pursue all available avenues to ensure that terrorist leaders who are involved in heinous attacks on our citizens are brought to justice".

China’s belief that it is lending a helping hand to Pakistan by protecting a ruthless terrorist on its behalf may actually be highly misplaced. It is precisely such protection that terrorists in Pakistan have enjoyed and exploited to carry out attacks in neighbouring Afghanistan and India. It was one such attack last month that compelled India to target a JeM camp in Balakot, deep inside Pakistan, with air strikes. The frustration that caused India to take such a strong step stemmed from the frequency and scale with which Pakistan-based and backed terrorists such as Azhar and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) leader Hafiz Saeed, among a host of others, had been directing bloody attacks against it with impunity. The possibility of a full-fledged war following the Indian air strikes was real. By blocking Azhar’s designation, China has only served to ensure that the war clouds do not lift off the Indian subcontinent. Given India’s conventional military superiority, a war could be highly damaging for Pakistan, especially given that its nuclear bluff has been called after the Balakot air strike. China would do well to recognize that its $75 billion worth of investments in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) would also not remain immune to the vagaries of any such war.

Pakistan, astoundingly, is today the only State in the world that is willing to go to war, even potentially a nuclear war, to shield its terrorist assets. China, through steps such as blocking Azhar’s designation, is only edging its all-weather ally down this destructive path. For China, the image of a duplicitous laggard in the global fight against terror does not sit well with its aspiration to emerge as a superpower rivaling the US in years to come.