Why Is China Protecting Masood Azhar, the Man Behind Current India-Pakistan Tensions?

101Reporters Desk | Feb 16, 2019 | 5 min read


‘Wuhan Spirit’ dissolves as China’s foreign policy doesn’t allow it to support India against Azhar, JeM

Shailesh Shrivastava

In April of 2018, after the historic meeting between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan, Asian politics seemed to be taking a positive turn. “At the Wuhan summit, Xi and Modi have agreed that India and China will do a joint project in Afghanistan. Here is yet another example of two Asian countries working together to help another Asian country. So, I think the future is bright as far as this aspect is concerned,” India’s ambassador to China Gautam Bambawale had said after the summit.

This move of Asia’s two tall leaders coming together and talking to each other for hours to resolve their bilateral issues and regional complications was lauded by many in the South East Asia region.

However, this informal summit looked nothing more than a photo op for both Modi and Xi -- the leaders who are very concerned about their own image in their respective countries.

“Prime Minister Modi and President Xi recognized the common threat posed by terrorism, and reiterated their strong condemnation of and resolute opposition to terrorism in all its forms and manifestations. They committed themselves to cooperate on counter-terrorism,” this statement by India after the summit indicated that China will now side with India in its next move to declare Masood Azhar a global terrorist.

Azhar’s Jaish-e-Mohammad has been behind several terror attacks in India, including the 2001 attack on the Parliament and the recent terror strike on a CRPF convoy in Pulwama that claimed lives of 42 soldiers of the paramilitary force.

However, not more than six months after the ‘Wuhan Spirit’ becoming a proper noun, China made it clear that the communist nation’s stand on the chief of US-banned terror organisation is not going to change unless Pakistan, where Azhar has been living since his release from India in exchange for passengers of hijacked Indian Airlines flight IC 814 in 1999, gives its ‘consent’ to declare him a ‘global terrorist’.

China’s love for Azhar

Beijing has always been the all weather friend for Islamabad or Rawalpindi to be precise (Rawalpindi houses Pak Army’s General Headquarters). But, China’s siding with Pakistan against blacklisting Azhar at the United Nations’ Security Council indicates the Dragon has more than just friendship in mind.

The two major objectives of Xi while trying to save the JeM chief are establishing its economic presence in Afghanistan and executing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

China has been investing very heavily in Afghanistan in recent years. In last five years, China has given or pledged over $320 million and extended $90 million toward development projects in Afghanistan. At the same time, Beijing’s $900 billion Belt-and-Road projected also traverses through some parts of Afghanistan.

It’s very obvious that India and China are vying for geopolitical influence by investing in war-torn Afghanistan. As India has already taken the government route and won over hearts of Afghans by building dams and hospitals, China’s approach is inclined towards setting up a trade route gateway in Afghanistan. A $3.5 billion deal to develop the Aynak copper mine in Afghanistan’s barren Logar Province is one such example.

In order to safeguard its business and geopolitical interests in Afghanistan and a major part of Pakistan, Beijing has to make sure it doesn’t come across as another Moscow or Washington in the eyes of Taliban.

And that explains why it has to protect Masood Azhar to protect its business interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Having fought against Russians in Afghanistan, Azhar enjoys a great comradery with top Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders, and at the same time his JeM keeps a stronghold in major parts of Pakistan, through which passes China’s ambitious CPEC project.

Avoiding confrontation with Islamists it irks

Efforts from Pakistan to bring warring Taliban and Afghan forces to a ceasefire have not gone unnoticed. In June last year, the Afghan Taliban declared a three-day ceasefire against the government troops to mark the festival of Eid-ul-Fitr peacefully. The development looks insignificant considering the duration of the ceasefire, but since it was the first incident of Talibs calling for a ceasefire, Afzal or JeM’s role cannot be ruled out.

The contentious Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) region also comes under the $62 billion CPEC project.

“Another dimension of China’s move to block the US and Indian efforts to designate Azhar as a terrorist is the threat that anti-Indian militant groups, like the JeM, could turn against the Pakistani state. This would have dangerous implications for China, especially for its massive investments and development initiatives in the South Asian country, including the multi-billion dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project,” Siegfried O Wolf, a South Asia expert at the University of Heidelberg had said in an interview with Deutsche Welle.

By not protecting Pakistan and Azhar at the UNSC, China will also enter a situation where it does business with a ‘country supporting terrorists’, simultaneously inviting a global media trial similar to that faced by the Russia-Syria collaboration in the face of Syrian offensive against its own people.

International terror groups like al-Qaeda, ‘Islamic State’ (IS), popularly known as Daesh in Middle East, and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) oppose Beijing for its alleged anti-Muslim policies against its ethnic minority, the Uighurs in its western Xinjiang province. Being friends with Taliban via Azhar and shielding Pakistan in the United Nations Security Council saves China from an additional confrontation with these Islamist groups.


(Author is an editor with 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters)

More stories published under