In what is being counted as a diplomatic victory here in New Delhi, Pakistan-based terrorist leader Masood Azhar was added to the UN Security Council (UNSC) “ISIL (Da’esh) and Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee” (colloquially, the 1267 Committee) sanctions list earlier today. Azhar heads Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), a group that the 1267 Committee had proscribed in 2001 for its links with Osama bin Laden. Indian security services blame JeM for a series of extremely serious attacks that have brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war on two occasions in the past.
In December 2001, JeM – along with Laskhar-e-Taiba, another Pakistan-based terror group – attacked the Indian Parliament Building, leading to the largest Indian military mobilization against Pakistan since the 1971 war between the two countries. In February this year, a JeM suicide bomber attacked a paramilitary convoy in Pulwama, Kashmir. India’s consequent aerial retaliation against a suspected Jaish camp in Pakistan – and Pakistan’s counter-retaliation – saw the first dogfight between the two air forces since 1971.
At a basic level, there is no denying that the UNSC move is only likely to have a symbolic effect: to mark Azhar as a “global terrorist,” as most Indian news outlets are describing it. He is neither known to be an intrepid globetrotter nor is he likely to stash his cash in, say, London or New York. Therefore, asking UN member states to ban him from visiting their countries and/or freezing his assets (as the 1267 Committee demands) is unlikely to have any tangible impact – unless Pakistan cooperates. Whether it does or does not – and Pakistan’s record really doesn’t give one much ground for optimism – remains to be seen.
Recall that India – with strident support from the United States, France, and the U.K. – has pushed for Azhar’s listing for a decade now. Out of the five attempts (including today) over the past decade, the last four bids to do so were scuttled by China, perhaps Pakistan’s closest international ally. Most gratingly for New Delhi, Beijing’s last so-called technical hold on the Azhar proposal was on March 13 this year – a month after the JeM-orchestrated Pulwama attack. So, a natural question to ask is: why now?
The timing itself provides clues that allows us to make a plausible conjecture. Let me explain.
That South Asia’s security dynamics are increasingly triangular is obvious: China’s support for Pakistan – militarily, economically, and diplomatically – has increased Islamabad’s relative power in the subcontinent and, consequently, kept India boxed in a continental stalemate. On its part, India’s China policy has oscillated between paralyzing pessimism (daunted by the massive power asymmetry between the two countries), heroic activism (the 2017 Doklam standoff, India’s stance on the Belt and Road Initiative), and unfounded optimism (global governance collaboration through the BRICS, SCO, and G-20).
China’s position toward India in the recent years, on the other hand, has been largely shaped by the New Delhi-Washington relationship. Chinese media routinely suggest – often directly – that India is “America’s pawn.” Bellicosity aside, Chinese strategists must have run the same calculations that, say, the 2017 US National Security Strategy made when it all but directly pitched India (along with other key Asia-Pacific democracies) against China. Simply put, it worries Beijing – at least the state-run media there – whenever it sees the United States team up with India on a security issue – any security issue. Tellingly, last month when the United States suggested that “all available resources” were being devoted to add Masood Azhar to the 1267 Committee sanctions list, China lashed out Washington for complicating the issue, noting that such a move was “not conducive to peace and stability in south Asia.”
But what happens when Washington-New Delhi relations appear to be going south? Could be it that Beijing sees it as an opening to make a token gesture to Delhi?
On April 21, the Trump administration announced that it will not renew temporary sanction waivers that it had granted in November 2018 to give Iranian oil importers some leeway. While India has significantly cut down on Iranian crude imports in the recent years, the American decision to essentially force it to go to zero in the middle of an extremely contested national election is likely to have domestic political ramifications. If the Iranian tap is shut dry, so to speak, oil prices will spike globally. With that, food staples will also cost more (due to the increase in transportation costs) – precisely the kind of thing that shakes an incumbent’s election prospects in a per capita poor country like India.
Optics haven’t helped matters. New Delhi came out looking rather helpless when the Indian foreign minister essentially had to plead with the U.S. secretary of state on April 28 for an extension of the waiver, reminding him about the Indian elections – and then Mike Pompeo dismissed her request. (This stood in sharp contrast to the foreign minister’s defiant stance almost a year earlier when she brushed away American sanctions on Iran by saying, “We abide by UN sanctions, not sanctions imposed by any individual country.”) And the Iran saga is just the latest and perhaps the nastiest of the skirmishes between Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi; areas of tension have included trade, Russian weapons imports, and burden-sharing in Afghanistan.
Finally, let me state my conjecture: Beijing knows how Indians – at least the electorally important Hindi heartland where Modi’s prospects are looking shakier than expected – feel about Azhar, and Pakistan. And Beijing further knows how Modi is desperately trying to make this into an election about Pakistan. By helping manage the domestic fallout of John Bolton’s Iran crusade the day before India is likely to be hit by it by giving Modi something to rally the electorate around – “Today is a day that would make every Indian proud!,” the prime minister wrote on Twitter – Beijing now has Modi’s ears. Should he come back on May 24, China surely will expect the friendship to continue.