Why China dropped its opposition to UN blacklisting of Pakistan-based terror chief Masood Azhar

  • India claimed decision to stop blocking sanctions on Jaish e-Mohammed leader as victory, but revised wording on listing also took into account Pakistani concerns
  • Beijing’s shift followed serious attack in Kashmir in February and comes amid growing concerns that China would be isolated over issue

Sarah Zheng

2 May, 2019

China’s decision to support a United Nations measure to sanction Pakistan-based terrorist chief Masood Azhar after a decade of opposition follows rising international pressure in the wake of a deadly attack in India earlier this year.

Analysts linked the climbdown to Beijing’s increasing concerns about being isolated diplomatically at a time of heightened global concern about terrorism, but some also argued that the shift was made possible by a change of wording that avoided angering China’s long-standing ally Pakistan.

On Wednesday, a UN Security Council committee blacklisted Azhar, head of the terrorist group Jaish e-Mohammed (JeM), after China released its technical hold on a proposal that would subject him to an assets freeze, travel ban and arms embargo.

The shift came after a decade of lobbying from India, during which time China raised several holds on proposals to blacklist Azhar due to technicalities – a move that prompted criticism that Beijing was shielding the terrorist at the behest of its “all-weather” ally Pakistan.

There were growing calls to sanction Azhar after the Pulwama attack in February, in which JeM – designated a terrorist organisation by the UN in 2001 – claimed responsibility for the death of 40 Indian security personnel in Kashmir.

China’s foreign ministry said it no longer opposed the proposal after it was revised and resubmitted by the United States, Britain and France, and added that it firmly supported Pakistan’s efforts to combat terrorism.

“After careful study of the revised materials and taking into consideration the opinions of relevant parties concerned, China does not object to the listing proposal,” ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in a statement.

“In international counterterrorism cooperation, we have to uphold the rules and procedures of the relevant UN body, follow the principle of mutual respect, resolve differences and build consensus through dialogue, and prevent politicising technical issues.”

China’s shift followed Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Keshav Gokhale’s trip to Beijing in April, where the issue was reportedly raised.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is up for re-election this year, welcomed the decision on Wednesday as one that would “make every Indian proud”.

While the opposition Indian National Congress welcomed the UN decision, it also criticised the listing for not explicitly referring to the role Azhar played in the Pulwama bombing, as draft proposals reportedly had.

The UN listing accused Azhar of conducting activities linked to al-Qaeda and referred to his former leadership of another terrorist group, Harakat ul-Mujahidin, but did not explicitly mention his activities in Kashmir.

Pakistan’s foreign ministry said previous proposals to blacklist Azhar did not meet the sanctions committee’s technical criteria and criticised “politically motivated attempts” to link the listing to the Pulwama attack and ongoing tensions in disputed Kashmir.

It also attacked efforts by Indian politicians and media to paint the move as a victory for India, saying the position was “absolutely false and baseless”.


Fawad Hussain Chauhdry, Pakistan’s minister for science and technology, tweeted that the omission of Kashmir in the listing was a “huge victory” for Pakistani diplomacy.

While Pakistan has officially banned the JeM militant group, observers say it still operates openly, a claim Islamabad fiercely denies.

The Pulwama incident sparked a tense stand-off between India and Pakistan, which have long been at odds over their competing claims to Kashmir.

Zhang Jiadong, a former Chinese diplomat in India and international relations professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, said: “This is a diplomatic concession from China for India, a signal of diplomatic support.

“At the same time, it was also driven by the global anti-terrorism trend. Without the February terrorist attack in Kashmir, China may not have agreed to India’s request.”

The shift was the result of pressure mainly from the broader international community, and not just unilateral pressure from the Indian government, he said.

“In the past, we mainly took Pakistan’s attitude into consideration, but now we need to balance Pakistan’s relationship with India and the rest of the international community,” Zhang added.

This is a diplomatic concession from China to India – Zhang Jiadong

But Mosharraf Zaidi, a former adviser to Pakistan’s foreign ministry and now a senior fellow at the policy think tank Tabadlab, said the removal of the more contentious language may have been a result of China’s diplomatic manoeuvring.

“The material change in the Masood Azhar listing situation is not that China allowed it to happen, but that the US, France and others changed the language and references in the listing to China’s liking,” he said.

“China’s objections would once again have caused Masood Azhar not to be listed, had the language of the listing not been expunged of political references, including references to occupied Kashmir.”

Regardless, analysts said the listing removed a major source of tension between China and India, but noted that Beijing had also been put under pressure by the US, which had threatened to bypass the sanctions committee and take the measure to the full Security Council, where it would have to place its objections on record.


Analysts said China feared being isolated at the UN. Photo: Reuters

“This would have isolated China further,” Srikanth Kondapalli, a professor in Chinese studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, said.

“China is getting isolated on this issue in the UN committee. China was isolated in the fifties and sixties, and it’s a nightmare for them.”

Avinash Godbole, a specialist in China-India relations at the OP Jindal Global University in Sonipat, India, said growing support for India’s stance in the UN Security Council cast Beijing in a poor light.

“India had never let this unreasonable posture on the part of China become an obstacle in bilateral relations and instead focused on building consensus and pressure to resolve the dispute,” he said.

China is getting isolated on this issue… it’s a nightmare for them

“It’s a good step as there has been a lot of angry perception against China, especially since the Pulwama terror attack.”

Wang Dehua, head of the Institute for South and Central Asia Studies at the Shanghai Municipal Centre for International Studies, said that resolving the Azhar issue was very important to India, which had complained that China maintained a double standard on counterterrorism.

“China likely said that the blacklist proposal was conditional on the removal of Kashmir and Pulwama in the listing,” he said.

“Once this problem is resolved, it should be good for China in its cooperation with South Asia, with India and with Pakistan.

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