China’s Diplomatic Moves Amidst the India-Pakistan Conflict

Publication: China Brief Volume: 19 Issue: 7

A file photo of the PRC's U.N. Ambassador, Ma Zhaoxu.


On March 13th, diplomatic representatives of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) placed a hold on a draft resolution under consideration at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC)—a resolution intended to designate Maulana Masood Azhar as a global terrorist (Business Today (India), March 14, 2019). Maulana Masood Azhar is the founding leader of Jaish-e-Muhammad (“Army of Muhammad”—JeM) (Militant Leadership Monitor, March 5). On February 14th, a suicide bomber killed 42 Indian paramilitary troops in the town of Pulwama, in Indian-administered Kashmir; in the aftermath, JeM quickly claimed responsibility for this attack (Al Jazeera, February 14). This incident dramatically escalated the tensions between Pakistan and India: on February 26th and 27th, both countries bombed each other, and were on the brink of full-scale war before the international community stepped in to mediate.

As a result of blocking the resolution against Massod Azhar, the PRC has been criticized for having double standards on the issue of terrorism. On the one hand, China is cracking down on its own Uighur Muslim population under the pretext of terrorism; while on the other hand, it is providing diplomatic cover to an alleged terrorist wanted for masterminding attacks in Indian-administered Kashmir. However, the actions of the PRC are part of a consistent pattern of pursuing its interests: protecting Pakistan and countering the rise of India; retaining the interest of Pakistan in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) by coming to its support; and seeking to prevent any threat to PRC interests on the part of groups in Pakistan.

Terrorism and China’s Response in the U.N. Security Council

In the wake of the Pulwama bombing, France—which held the presidency of the UNSC for March 2019—introduced a draft resolution, backed by the United States and United Kingdom, to formally designate Masood Azhar as a global terrorist. This proposed resolution was entered under the framework of the informally-named “Al Qaida Sanctions Committee” (or “1267 Committee”) formed pursuant to UNSC Resolution 1267 (UNSC, October 15, 1999). If approved, this resolution would have put a global travel ban on Azhar and frozen his assets. However, on March 13th the PRC formally placed a “technical” hold on the resolution, effectively killing it. This was the fourth time that China so acted to protect Masood Azhar in the UNSC (Nikkei Asian Review, March 15). The official explanation offered by Chinese diplomats and media for the hold was that the PRC needed “more time… to conduct a comprehensive evaluation” of the resolution and its merits; and that in the meantime, an orderly UNSC process would “help related countries solve their issues through dialogue and discussions, and avoid complications that could have an impact on regional peace” (Global Times, March 14).

The PRC’s actions have attracted criticism in Western media on grounds that it is practicing double standards in regards to terrorism (Foreign Policy, March 21). In contrast to its go-slow position regarding Masood Azhar and JeM, the PRC has taken a hardline position domestically: it has been credibly accused of holding hundreds of thousands of Muslims in detention centers in Xinjiang Province (China Brief, May 15 2018; China Brief, November 5 2018), and has defended these detentions as necessary measures to control extremism and terrorism in its southwestern region (Global Times, October 17, 2018).

PRC Motivations in Protecting Masood Azhar

Why the different standards? There are four reasons why the PRC has risked the ire of the global community by blocking UNSC resolutions against Masood Azhar:

1) Protecting the Interests of its Long-term Partner Pakistan

Pakistan has been a strategic partner of China since 1962. During the last 57 years regimes have changed along with international politics, but Pakistan’s relations with China have remained close. China helped Pakistan during its wars with India, against the Soviet Union in the Afghan War, and also with the development of Pakistan’s nuclear program (Times of India, January 28, 2017). Likewise, China has consistently stood with Pakistan in the UN Security Council. Over the years, India has lobbied for multiple UNSC resolutions against Pakistan-based groups that India claims are involved in terrorism. However, as a permanent member of the UNSC, China has used its veto power generously to provide diplomatic cover for Pakistan. If the UNSC designates Azhar, or others like him, as terrorists then it will not only damage the international standing of Pakistan, but also potentially generate problems for Pakistan internally.

2) Countering the Rise of India

China attempts to indirectly counter India by supporting its arch-nemesis Pakistan. India stands as a major impediment to China’s goals to become the undisputed leader of Asia. Although the size of the Indian economy is nowhere near that of China, India is projected to overtake China as the world’s most populous country by the year 2024 (Times of India, June 21, 2017), and its military power presents a potential challenge to the PRC in South Asia. In addition to that, India has also given refuge to the Dalai Lama since 1959, and is home to the Tibetan government-in-exile. Therefore, China is apprehensive of India’s rise and perceives it as a threat not only to its own aspirations of global dominance, but also for the security of Tibet (China Daily, April 5, 2017).

India is constantly facing the menace of terrorism: terrorists have attacked the Indian parliament, its financial hub Mumbai, and launched countless attacks in Kashmir. These attacks not only affect the growth of the Indian economy, but also prevent it from attaining the status of a fully secure country (India Today, October 6, 2015). India wants to get rid of its terrorism problem, and it believes that the only way to do so is to confront Pakistan. Each and every time India blames Pakistan for acts of terrorism, China provides diplomatic cover to Pakistan in the UN Security Council—therefore, the PRC is effectively aiding terrorist groups that target India [1].

Despite this, Beijing still does not want to confront India directly. It not only engages in trade with India at levels much higher than Pakistan, but also continues to reach out to India through diplomatic connections. Therefore, right after blocking the resolution against Azhar, China expressed its desire for diplomatic dialogue with India (South China Morning Post, March 16). Such steps are intended to help the PRC manage India’s reactions to the moves made by China against India’s interests, especially in the UNSC.

3) Retaining the Support of Pakistan for the CPEC

The third reason that motivated China to block the resolution against Azhar was its ongoing effort to retain the whole-hearted support of Pakistan for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), an ambitious $62 billion infrastructure program the PRC has pledged for Pakistan’s economy (China Brief, 05 January; China Brief, February 15). The former Pakistani Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government of PM Nawaz Sharif signed the CPEC agreements with China; however, ever since assuming office in 2018, the incumbent Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party-led government of Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan has expressed reluctance to carry forward with CPEC.

Razak Dawood, a PTI cabinet member, has demanded that CPEC projects should be postponed for one year, and reviewed to ensure that they consistent with the interests of Pakistan (Pakistan Today, September 30, 2018). Even the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, has said that Pakistan will ask China to review the CPEC agreements. This change in policy angered Beijing, which refused to assist Pakistan last year when the country desperately needed a bailout to support its troubled economy (Dawn, November 3, 2018). Pakistan sought help from Saudi Arabia and the UAE instead to prevent a foreign exchange default.

Following this squabble in autumn 2018, relations have mended in 2019, and Pakistan is currently making a renewed push for progress in CPEC. Pakistan has allocated additional funds to develop CPEC infrastructure projects in the southern province of Balochistan (Express Tribune, March 22, 2019)—a region that has recently seen threats to Chinese citizens and PRC infrastructure projects from separatist insurgents (China Brief, 15 February). PM Imran Khan has also agreed to attend the Second Belt and Road Forum scheduled to be held in Beijing later this month.

4) Purchasing Security for PRC Interests in South Asia

There is an additional security dimension to the PRC’s diplomatic protection for Masood Azhar and JeM:

China relies in part on Pakistan to secure its southwestern border region. With the help of Pakistan, China has cracked down on the Uighur militants who were operating under the umbrella of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) (Dawn, September 2, 2015). Therefore, the PRC wants to retain a strategic relationship with Pakistan to secure its borders—especially at a time when Beijing has cracked down on Uighur citizens en masse in Xinjiang.

Furthermore, CPEC roads pass near Pakistan-administered Kashmir, which is the operating area for Jaish-e-Muhammad. If the PRC had supported sanctions against Azhar, there was a fear that JeM might have attacked Chinese interests in Pakistan. In that context, experts believe that China’s moves in the UNSC have a two-fold benefit: (1) they deflect the possibility of JeM directing attacks against Chinese interests and citizens based in Pakistan; and (2) they smartly mute any possible criticism by Islamic groups in Pakistan of Beijing’s mass internment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. [2]

The Challenge Continues

Despite shrewd moves by China on the diplomatic chessboard, the challenge is far from over. The United States has introduced a new resolution in the UNSC against Masood Azhar. This resolution is not part of the 1267 Sanctions Committee—which means that, unlike previous resolutions, the debate on this latest resolution will not be kept behind closed doors. China can still veto this resolution, but this time it will have to publicly explain the reasons for any veto—which is the aim of Washington behind this move (Live Mint, March 28). The PRC Foreign Ministry has reacted strongly to this move, and has criticized it as an act that undermines the authority of the 1267 Committee. Beijing continues to urge UNSC members to allow time and space for dialogue on the matter of Masood Azhar (PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs, March 28).

This latest move by Washington has placed China in an awkward position: now once again it has to defend Masood Azhar in the UNSC, at the potential cost of its public standing and reputation. However, as explained above, the PRC will still oppose this resolution in order to protect its interests, which are interlinked with Pakistan. This means that relations between China and India will likely further deteriorate in the near future owing to this ongoing battle in the UN Security Council. However, Beijing will continue to defend Pakistan, pursuing the course of action that best serves its interests.

Adnan Aamir is a journalist and researcher based in Pakistan. He has written extensively on the Belt and Road Initiative for Nikkei Asian Review, Financial Times, South China Morning Post, Lowy Institute, CSIS and Asia Times, among others. He was a Chevening South Asian Journalism Fellow 2018 at the University of Westminster, London. Follow him on Twitter at: @iAdnanAamir


[1] Author’s interview with Dr. Mohan Malik, Professor at Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Hawaii, USA.

[2] Ibid.