Is south Asia any safer now, with China assessing options in region anew?

China & Pulwama aftermath

The Pulwama attack on February 14 by Jaish-e-Mohammed  (JeM) has tested China’s postures on the issue of terrorism. The attack was followed by India's withdrawal of most-favoured-nation treatment to Pakistan and statements to the effect that excess water through the Indus river will be utilised within the Indian territory, instead of flowing into Pakistan. On all these three issues -- terrorist attack, MFN withdrawal and water flow -- China has been silent given its help in raising the Mujahideen forces in the 1980s against the then Soviets in Afghanistan. It is now well known that China had concluded a deal with the tanzims in Fata (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) that they should desist from supporting Uighur insurgency in Xinjiang in lieu of protection regionally and globally. Second, China had signed a free-trade agreement with Pakistan in 2006 and promised to invest $62 billion in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Third, China has not signed any water-sharing agreement – despite global norms in this regard – on rivers flowing from there into other countries, including on the Indus, which originates from the disputed Aksai Chin region, and Yarlung Zangpo, which becomes the Brahmaputra at Namcha Barua in Arunachal Pradesh. 

On the Pulwama attack itself, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson’s response came days later. It stated Beijing condemns “all forms of terrorism”, without mentioning JeM or Kashmir, and hopes that “relevant regional countries will cooperate to cope with the threat of terrorism and jointly uphold regional peace and stability”. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s message to Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, likewise, suggested that “countries in the region should enhance co-operation, jointly address the threat of terrorism and maintain regional peace and security”.

Later, China’s dragging of its feet on this issue manifested in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) counter-terrorism committee, which it had blocked several times in enlisting Masood Azhar as a terrorist in the 1267 committee for “lack of sufficient evidence”. On February 21, the UNSC condemned JeM, which had claimed responsibility to the Pulwama attack. China’s spokesperson stated that the reference to JeM is only in “general terms” and not to be construed as a “judgement” on that organisation. 

If the other P5 countries exerted pressure in the UNSC, another pressure on China was mounting at the 16th Russia-India-China trilateral meeting at Wuzhen on February 27. The joint statement of the three foreign ministers finally went to the extent of countering the “breeding grounds” of terrorism. The Russian pressure, in addition to the possibility of international isolation, prompted China to agree to this resolution. However, any assumption of an active and positive measure in counter-terrorism by China is likely to fail given the recent history of Chinese responses in favour of its “all-weather” friend Pakistan. 

For instance, China has previously blocked references to Zakir-ul-Rehman, Masood Azhar and other terrorists at the 1267 committee.  Even though Beijing agreed to counter terrorism at the Xiamen BRICS meeting in September 2017 and at the Wuhan meeting between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, and to conduct hand-in-hand army-to-army joint operations, its contribution to actual counter-terrorism efforts has been unsatisfactory. It also appears that China intends to extract diplomatic or other concessions before taking any concrete measure in this regard.

Srikanth Kondapalli, Professor in Chinese Studies at JNU

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel