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Designating Masood Azhar at the United Nations: More than a Symbolic Diplomatic Victory

Dr Rajeesh Kumar is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • May 09, 2019

    After a decade of steadfast blocking, China finally backed the proposal to designate the chief of the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) Masood Azhar as a ‘global terrorist’ at the United Nations (UN). With China lifting its objection, Azhar has been listed as a global terrorist in the 1267 Sanctions List. Consequently, he will face freezing of assets, a travel ban, and an arms embargo by all UN member states. For India, the one country that relentlessly pursued the issue at the UN Security Council, this is not only a diplomatic victory but a political triumph as well.

    A long, tough struggle

    In the past, several efforts to get Azhar sanctioned at the UN were thwarted by China. The latest instance of a Chinese technical ‘hold’ came on March 13, 2019 when France, the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US) initiated a proposal for naming Azhar in the UN Sanctions List after JeM took responsibility for the terror attack that killed more than 40 security personnel in Pulwama, South Kashmir. On three prior occasions in 2009, 2016 and 2017, similar proposals failed due to Chinese opposition. The first effort was made after the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks when India moved the proposal in the UN Sanctions Committee. In 2016, in the context of an attack on the Pathankot airbase, India, along with the P3 of France, the UK and the US, initiated the proposal. In 2017, once again the P3 nations moved a similar motion in the Sanctions Committee. However, on all these occasions, citing insufficient proof against Azhar and absence of consensus among members of the committee, China had blocked the proposal from being adopted.

    What prompted China's change of mind?

    Undoubtedly, the primary credit goes to New Delhi’s patient diplomatic efforts. After the latest hold by China in March 2019, there was an outcry from Indian commentators to stop such ‘meaningless’ diplomatic efforts at the UN. However, there was a strong belief in the government, particularly in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), that patience and perseverance will ultimately lead to a favourable outcome. One reason for this belief was New Delhi's upgraded relationship with Beijing, particularly since the April 2018 Wuhan Summit. Therefore, when China placed the hold, rather than blaming it, India was ready to address the concerns raised by China.

    Consequently, none of the official Indian reactions and statements mentioned China by name. The MEA statement merely noted that the Committee was not able to decide on the proposal for listing on account of "a member placing the proposal on hold." In contrast, in 2016, the MEA had named China as the country responsible for blocking the move and stated that India would keep trying to convince China with patience. Home Minister Rajnath Singh, responding to China's hold, stated that "they [China] must have some reason for this. We will need to understand what their reasons are for doing this." China also responded to this positively, noting that the matter will be resolved properly, and the hold is only for buying time for continued consultations. Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale's trip to Beijing in April also helped to expedite the shift in Chinese position. Meanwhile, India also shared all evidences of terrorist activities of Jaish-e-Mohammad and its chief with China. Considering the functional modalities of the 1267 Sanctions Committee and the hold China has in it, this was the only way to achieve India's goal.

    However, it was not an easy task given China’s strategic stakes in Pakistan. Taking advantage of heightened global concern about terrorism, New Delhi pushed its friends to exert pressure on Beijing at various levels. For instance, after China put a hold on the proposal, the US had circulated a draft resolution in the UN Security Council to ban Azhar. The draft, which was backed by France and UK, discussed China's double standards on terrorism by mentioning the Xinjiang issue. Unlike the secrecy that cloaks the actions of states in the 1267 Sanctions Committee, the debate on a resolution in the Security Council is public. If the US draft had been tabled in the Security Council, China would have had to publicly justify its decade-long campaign to block the attempts to designate Azhar as a global terrorist. As a nation that seeks great power status and image, it would have been a huge setback for China to defend a known terrorist like Masood Azhar, that too in a platform like the UN Security Council. Interestingly, since 1971, when the People's Republic of China (PRC) became a permanent member of the Security Council, only thrice has Beijing cast a stand-alone veto in the Council. These were in 1972, 1997 and 1999 on resolutions related to the membership of Bangladesh, and the civil wars in Guatemala and Macedonia, respectively.

    For Beijing, the emerging dissonance in the Indo-US relationship, primarily on issues such as oil sanctions on Iran and weapons procurement from Russia, was a ripe time to woo New Delhi. The Chinese behaviour at the 1267 Committee on Azhar’s listing had always been affected by the shadow of US-China strategic competition. By blocking the proposals, China was not only signalling to India but also to the US that any move to balance or contain China in the Indo-Pacific would have inevitable consequences. Moreover, given the robust relationship between India and the US, China also understood that if Azhar were to be designated at the UN, it is not Beijing but Washington that would get credit. China thus not only utilised the element of uncertainty in the Indo-US relationship but also offered a goodwill gesture to strengthen the Wuhan spirit.

    Another Chinese concern that coincided with the listing of Azhar was the Second BRI Summit and India’s non-participation in and vocal opposition to the project in the past. By removing its technical hold, China not only appears to have bought a softened India's approach to the BRI, but also created an opening to pressure New Delhi to “bring the long-pending Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) rail corridor under BRI.”

    In addition, the increased international support that India received after the Pulwama attack for its actions against terrorism, including France’s move to freeze the assets of Azhar and its call for a European ban on Azhar, may also have influenced the Chinese decision.

    China and Pakistan also appear to have calculated the pros and cons of putting Azhar on the Sanctions List. Of late, Pakistan has come under a lot of pressure from the international community on its support to terror groups. For instance, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) has been tightening the screws on Pakistan. Since June 2018, Pakistan has been on the FATF 'grey list' owing to its actions such as providing safe haven and financial support to terror groups. At its last plenary meeting in February 2019, the FATF had stated that Pakistan has not done enough to check the finances of terror groups like the JeM and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). If Pakistan did not complete its 27-point action plan to control terror finances within the two scheduled timelines of May and October 2019, the country could be blacklisted. Such an outcome would seriously harm Pakistan' eligibility for future borrowings from international and regional financial institutions, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and Asian Development Bank (ADB). Given the fact that Pakistan has been seeking a huge bailout of about US$ 6-8 billion from the IMF, blacklisting would have serious consequences for its already crumbling economy. China and Pakistan may have calculated that by producing evidence of action against Azhar, Islamabad could escape from such a blacklisting.

    Beyond a ‘symbolic diplomatic victory’

    Notwithstanding the fact that the listing of Azhar is a huge diplomatic victory for India, the general perception is that the listing as such may not help India in its fight against state-sponsored terrorism unless Pakistan changes its policy of providing safe-haven and financial support to terrorists. The case of Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) Chief Hafiz Saeed is instructive here. In December 2008, the UN Security Council named Saeed as a global terrorist. However, Saeed is a free man in Pakistan, with his organisation managing hundreds of religious seminaries, schools, hospitals and ambulance networks across the country. He also founded a political party that is very active in Pakistani media and frequently holds public gatherings too. The UNSC's limitations in monitoring its sanctions and the domestic litigations against the 1267 Committee measures in Pakistan have together rendered Saeed’s listing a futile move.

    Yet, considering the interests and influence of the parties involved in the process of terror listing at the UN Sanctions Committee, for India, which relentlessly pursued the issue at the UN, in many ways, it is a triumph that goes beyond the label of 'symbolic diplomatic victory.' First, it is a success in terms of power politics and projection. Second, it shows how consistent and pragmatic has been India's multilateral policy.

    The UN Security Council is a testing ground of power politics. Once the interests of great powers get involved, a resolution against their interest is difficult both in the Council and in the UN’s subsidiary organs. However, by being patient about China's concerns and at the same time exerting pressure on Beijing at various levels, India managed to get the desired outcome. All these efforts were made with the least material capability to influence the decisions of other actors either in the Council or outside. For the same reason, designating Azhar as a global terrorist is not a mere symbolic diplomatic victory. Instead, it should be viewed as a triumph of power politics and projection.

    Similarly, the decade-long effort for listing Azhar showcases the pragmatism that marks India's multilateral diplomacy. It questions the general perception that India's multilateral approach is ambivalent and inconsistent. The fundamental character of diplomacy, especially multilateral diplomacy, is incrementalism. Therefore, expecting favourable outcomes immediately and desisting from persistent efforts due to an initial unfavourable result is a suboptimal approach in multilateral engagements. The listing of Azhar also reminds us of the underlying assumption that in international politics there are no permanent friends or enemies. It also reinforces the necessity of persevering in the efforts to gain membership in the UN Security Council and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) despite all the setbacks hitherto.

    Views expressed are of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.