As the worst crisis between India and Pakistan since 2002 continues to play out, the world is watching for New Delhi’s reaction to Islamabad’s decision on Friday to release the Indian pilot captured after being shot down.
The origins of the crisis are not, of course, based in February 2019. Yes, India made the decision to strike Pakistani territory in retaliation for what was the worst terror attack against its security personnel in Kashmir in three decades, but what the current situation really represents is a boiling over of years of frustration in Delhi.
After the nuclear age began in South Asia, friction between the two neighbours took on a new character. Pakistan’s military and intelligence services recognised that a potent tool to bleed India with a thousand cuts would be proxy terror groups – impassioned fighters, with great anti-India animus, who could be trained and guided.
Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), the group at the centre of the ongoing conflict, is a familiar name to India. It was responsible for the 1999 hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight, the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament that sparked the last major crisis, and two assaults in 2016 on Indian military installations, the second of which resulted in an Indian action across The Line of Control, the demarcation line that separates the Indian- and Pakistani-controlled parts of Kashmir.
JeM’s leader, Masood Azhar, remains among India’s most wanted terrorists. He lives on Pakistani soil. And while he has occasionally been taken into “protective custody” by the Pakistani state after Indian protests, he continues to recruit fighters to his cause and plan attacks.
If the current crisis does soon come to an end, Azhar’s fate on the other side of it will be a top priority for India. Since the JeM attack on February 14, India’s diplomats have embarked on a global campaign to gain support to both pressure Pakistan on its continued tolerance of these groups on its soil and pursue multilateral means to proscribe Azhar personally.
JeM is listed as a terrorist organisation under United Nations Security Council resolution 1267, but Azhar has not been designated a “global terrorist”. Amid the escalation of the ongoing crisis, the United States, Britain and France have all voiced support for Azhar’s listing, representing an Indian diplomatic victory.
Russia, meanwhile, has expressed its “solidarity” with India as it fights terrorism and may be supportive of such an effort. The problem for India – and the reason Azhar is yet to be designated despite JeM’s repeated involvement in terrorist activities – is China.
Beijing has for several years put a “technical hold” at the Security Council, arguing that India’s arguments are not coherent with what China’s foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang last week called the “clear norms on the listing of terrorist organisations or individuals”. The issue has emerged as a major issue between the two countries, especially since 2016.
Beijing’s close and special relationship with Islamabad has made it sensitive to the preferences of Pakistan’s military establishment, which today is in charge of coordinating security for Chinese contractors in the country as they oversee projects under the multibillion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
Separately, Beijing has long feared Pakistani territory becoming a haven for armed groups that threaten its interests in its western areas. By shielding Azhar, it increases the likelihood that militants networked with JeM don’t take an interest in training and arming Uyghur separatist groups.
Without Chinese support, Azhar is likely to continue in his old ways, ensuring that when this crisis ends, another won’t be too far off. But the seriousness of the current situation has firmed international support behind India, casting a light on China, which might see greater international interest than in the past should it obstruct continued efforts to hold Azhar accountable. Beijing should take note.
This article first appeared at the South China Morning Post. It is republished here with kind permission.