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China’s embrace of Masood Azhar has primarily to do with CPEC

Gautam SenUpdated : March 30, 2019, 6:17 PM

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi shakes hands with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during a meeting at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China, on 19 March. REUTERS

It also has to do with the legality of China’s occupation of PoK territory ceded by Pakistan, the vital and irreplaceable artery of the entire historic BRI project.


China’s veto of international sanctions against Masood Azhar appears superficially explicable, but loyalty to Pakistan being deemed the sole rationale lacks real conviction. The growing engagement of Russia with Pakistan also seems a little puzzling, given its historic ties with India and huge sale of arms to it that benefit Russian arms production and R&D massively. Both these situations require deeper reflection and the answer to the apparent conundrum in both instances lies in critical national interests of China and Russia and the geopolitics that underpin them.

China’s willingness to countenance international opprobrium by shielding Masood Azhar since it has been vocal condemning Islamic terrorism and adopting extreme measures within China itself, supposedly to combat it, is especially strange. Its policy seems to lack calculation and might outwardly seem to be a sentimental impulse in deference to Pakistani sensitivities. China’s policy becomes even more puzzling when it is eminently feasible for China to have its cake and eat it too by allowing the UNSC resolution to pass and look the other way while Pakistan only adopts pro forma action against Azhar, the recent incarceration in so-called “protective custody”, a prime instance of thumbing its nose at the world!

China’s protective embrace of Masood Azhar is motivated by something more substantial. It has to do with CPEC and the legality of China’s occupation of PoK territory ceded by Pakistan, the vital and irreplaceable artery of the entire historic BRI project. The terror campaign of Masood Azhar and JeM is a political affirmation of Pakistani assertion to sovereignty over PoK and the legality of its claim over not just PoK, but J&K in its entirety. It may be a contested claim but it is nevertheless the imperative fig leaf of legality on which it is based. A formal repudiation by the UNSC, the world’s highest consensual political authority, of Masood Azhar, embodying the moral and political identity of JeM as the movement asserting Pakistani juridical claims over J&K, would have served to undermine the very claim of Pakistani sovereignty to J&K itself.

Countries engaged in blatant violation of international law never admit to it and, on the contrary, strive to couch their misconduct by presenting legal justification for it. And only if Pakistani claims possess a legal basis of entitlement to PoK and beyond does the ceding of territory, of enormous strategic importance, in Northern Kashmir and Ladakh to China in 1963 becomes valid in international law. This is the rationale that accounts for the conundrum of China’s apparently inexplicable policy towards Masood Azhar and JeM. It also explains why India cannot participate in CPEC-BRI, which would undoubtedly bring major economic benefits to it, without compromising the legality of its claim to J&K and PoK. India would be implicitly accepting that Pakistan ceded its sovereign territory to China.

As an aside, it might be noted that the CPEC route through ceded PoK territory is vulnerable to being easily cut off by military action and the mere threat it might happen in a time of crisis would remove insurance cover for goods in transit through it. Of course, China might risk its own exports traversing the vulnerable route uninsured, but the counterpart flow of imported goods into China would not accept such a risk unless China decided to shoulder the entire risk burden of goods worth billions of dollars in transit that were facing the threat of violent interdiction.

Russia’s deep engagement with Pakistan is daily becoming more intense and is hard to ignore. Its attempt to broker peace after the Pulwama terrorist assault in February by JeM, effectively requiring a neutral Russian stance between victim, a historic friend sensitive to its current difficult international predicament, and an assailant, who is a repeat offender, is revealing and necessitates explanation. It is likely that Russia is inexorably poised to become a benefactor of Pakistan, which means a provider of arms, technical assistance and, possibly, energy supplies. And Pakistan will surely insist on know-how to combat Russian-supplied armaments to India in exchange for its cooperation and goodwill. And will crucial spares be withheld from India during an Indo-Pak conflict in the interests of peace that Russia will seek to solicitously broker?

Russian overtures towards Pakistan are based on the grim realities of geopolitics and echo the Central Asian Great Game, memorably chronicled by Peter Hopkirk. Russia’s need for Pakistani goodwill arises from the imperative need to deal with the deadly eastern half of the pincer movement that has left it precariously vulnerable in the west. A succession of Eastern European countries and some former Soviet republics are being used by NATO to neutralise and blackmail Russia. Their absorption into the western economic sphere is being followed by situating ABMs in their territory, the purpose of which is to signal NATO ability to counter Russian missile retaliation once the majority of them have been destroyed in a NATO first-strike. The expectation, one presumes, is the hope it will make Russia more cooperative.

Pakistan and Afghanistan, in which it will shortly enjoy compelling influence, is a vital key to mitigate NATO incursion into Central Asia. And growing US-Pak estrangement has created the opportunity for such an engagement. Apart from Pakistan’s geographical position, its ability to influence Islamic militants in the entire region could not be ignored by Russia. And the evidence of competition between NATO countries and Russia in Central Asia is all too apparent, the recent Caspian Sea accord pointedly prohibiting outside military presence in the region. There is no room for sentimentality in such a grave security predicament. China is also playing a vital role in the region despite potential for a divergence of Sino-Russian interests beyond a certain point.

India can offer Russia little other than political solidarity and purchase its arms though it has recently chosen France wisely, as the only reliable alternative. India’s alleged privileged role as the contemporary “swing power”, which strengthens the side it joins, touted by lazy thinking, has turned out to be a chimera. It is in reality lodged between one pole of global power, the Sino-Pak axis from which its national interests are too fundamentally estranged to swing towards and another, the US, known to require unctuous deference from partners.

Dr Gautam Sen taught international political economy for more than two decades at the London School of Economics and Political Science and is currently co-Director of the Dharmic Ideas and Policy Foundation, UK.


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