Why China has a soft spot for Masood Azhar

Without massive Chinese support, Pakistan would be in no position to wage a proxy war against India. It is China’s proxy war as well. Pakistan is a key tool in their plans to destabilise India. Hence, it is to be supported and saved from embarrassment as a state sponsor of terrorism. With Pakistan as its foremost ally in the region, China poses a long-term strategic challenge to India as a competing regional power in Asia.


SINCE March 2016, China has consistently refused to allow the 1267 Committee of the UN Security Council to designate Masood Azhar, the chief of the internationally banned terrorist organisation Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), as a global terrorist. Soon after the Pulwama attack on February 14, a Chinese spokesman condemned the attack but refused to relent on the issue despite the JeM having accepted responsibility for the strike. 

The so-called ‘reset’ in the China-India relationship after the Wuhan summit meeting held in April 2018 does not seem to have affected China’s stubborn support for the chief of a banned terror outfit. Why is China so much in favour of Masood Azhar? To answer this question, it is necessary to take stock of the larger China-India relationship and China’s quest to dominate Asia’s geostrategic landscape while simultaneously pursuing its ambition to replace the US as the world’s pre-eminent power.

China’s military assertiveness in the South China Sea (it has occupied some of the disputed Spratly islands and has reclaimed land from the sea to build a military airstrip) and its belligerence on the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea are indicators of its growing proclivity to settle territorial and boundary disputes by force rather than through diplomatic negotiations. 

China still suffers from the Middle Kingdom syndrome and finds it difficult to accept India as a co-equal power in Asia. China would like to see India reduced to the level of a subaltern state. In order to maintain its assumed supremacy as the tiger on the Asian mountain, China is engaged in executing a carefully formulated plan aimed at the strategic encirclement of India. Pakistan is a key tool in China’s plans to destabilise India and, hence, it is to be supported and saved from embarrassment as a state sponsor of terrorism.

In the words of the leaders of the two countries, the China-Pakistan friendship is ‘strategic’ and is “higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans and sweeter than honey.” China has “guaranteed Pakistan’s territorial integrity”. China continues to oppose India’s nuclear weapons programme and refuses to discuss nuclear CBMs (confidence-building measures) with India. China has a clandestine nuclear warheads-ballistic missiles-military hardware technology transfer relationship with Pakistan that has led to the undermining of strategic stability in South Asia.

Without massive Chinese support, Pakistan would be in no position to wage a proxy war against India. It is China’s proxy war as well. China is Pakistan’s second largest trading partner. As part of his ‘belt and road’ initiative (BRI), President Xi Jinping has announced plans for massive investment in the development of infrastructure for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a distance of 3,000 km. The total investment in the proposed corridor is expected to be about $62 billion. Pakistan, of course, has failed to realise that the CPEC is a debt trap that will eventually make it the 23rd province of China.

China is gradually extending its maritime outreach to the Indian Ocean. In the northern Indian Ocean, China is engaged in acquiring port facilities through its ‘string of pearls’ strategy to enable the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) Navy to operate in the seas around India. It has built ports in Sri Lanka, off Myanmar, in Qatar and Pakistan. Gwadar port on the Makran coast of Pakistan has been leased to China for 40 years. China has also upgraded ports in Chittagong (Bangladesh) and Lamu (Kenya). These ports can be converted to naval bases in due course. 

China’s support to the military-backed regime in Myanmar; efforts at making inroads into Nepal; increasing activities in the Bay of Bengal; its relentless efforts to increase its influence in Bhutan and Bangladesh; its attempts to isolate India in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and keep India’s participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation at a low ebb are all indicators of its intention to bog India down in an unstable neighbourhood. 

Territorial and boundary disputes that are carried over from history and left unresolved carry within them the seeds of future conflict. India’s unresolved territorial and boundary dispute with China and an un-demarcated Line of Actual Control (LAC) on the Indo-Tibetan border do not augur well for long-term peace and stability between these two Asian giants. 

China is steadily enhancing its military capabilities. The military gap between China and India is growing as the latter’s military modernisation is constrained by its low defence expenditure, which is now about 1.5 per cent of the GDP, while China’s defence budget has maintained a steady rate of growth for over a decade. At present, there is a quantitative gap between the PLA and the Indian armed forces. If Indian military modernisation continues to stagnate, this will soon become a qualitative gap as well. With the rapid modernisation of the PLA, China will soon be in a position to dictate terms to India on the settlement of the territorial dispute. 

India is poised to defend its territory against Chinese aggression. However, that capability is not adequate to deter aggression. India must upgrade its military strategy against China from dissuasion to deterrence. Only the capability to take the war into Chinese territory will deter the adversary from initiating another border war. Such capability is provided only by strike formations of the Army, combined with the ability of the Indian Air Force to dominate the skies over Tibet to give Army commanders a free hand and to inflict punitive damage, and the ability of the Indian Navy to dominate the Indian Ocean. India needs at least two Strike Corps to take the war into Chinese territory — one each for Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh.

With Pakistan as its foremost ally in the region, China poses a long-term strategic challenge to India as a competing regional power in Asia. It will remain a major military threat till the territorial dispute is resolved. India needs to take this reality into account and distinguish between what China professes — peaceful co-existence — and what it actually does, and plan accordingly. 

In the near future, a situation of tenuous peace and tranquillity is likely to continue to prevail along India’s Himalayan frontier. It will be punctuated increasingly by patrol face-offs, Chinese transgressions like those at Chumar (2014) and Doklam (2017) and new claims on Indian territory such as the Tawang Tract in Arunachal Pradesh. 

Not relenting on the issue of designating Masood Azhar as a global terrorist by the UNSC is part of China’s game plan to embarrass India in its quest for strategic dominance. India must continue to develop its comprehensive national power and keep its powder dry.

SINCE March 2016, China has consistently refused to allow the 1267 Committee of the UN Security Council to designate Masood Azhar, the chief of the internationally banned terrorist organisation Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), as a global terrorist. Soon after the Pulwama attack on February 14, a Chinese spokesman condemned the attack but refused to relent on the issue despite the JeM having accepted responsibility for the strike. 

The so-called ‘reset’ in the China-India relationship after the Wuhan summit meeting held in April 2018 does not seem to have affected China’s stubborn support for the chief of a banned terror outfit. Why is China so much in favour of Masood Azhar? To answer this question, it is necessary to take stock of the larger China-India relationship and China’s quest to dominate Asia’s geostrategic landscape while simultaneously pursuing its ambition to replace the US as the world’s pre-eminent power.

China’s military assertiveness in the South China Sea (it has occupied some of the disputed Spratly islands and has reclaimed land from the sea to build a military airstrip) and its belligerence on the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea are indicators of its growing proclivity to settle territorial and boundary disputes by force rather than through diplomatic negotiations. 

China still suffers from the Middle Kingdom syndrome and finds it difficult to accept India as a co-equal power in Asia. China would like to see India reduced to the level of a subaltern state. In order to maintain its assumed supremacy as the tiger on the Asian mountain, China is engaged in executing a carefully formulated plan aimed at the strategic encirclement of India. Pakistan is a key tool in China’s plans to destabilise India and, hence, it is to be supported and saved from embarrassment as a state sponsor of terrorism.

In the words of the leaders of the two countries, the China-Pakistan friendship is ‘strategic’ and is “higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans and sweeter than honey.” China has “guaranteed Pakistan’s territorial integrity”. China continues to oppose India’s nuclear weapons programme and refuses to discuss nuclear CBMs (confidence-building measures) with India. China has a clandestine nuclear warheads-ballistic missiles-military hardware technology transfer relationship with Pakistan that has led to the undermining of strategic stability in South Asia.

Without massive Chinese support, Pakistan would be in no position to wage a proxy war against India. It is China’s proxy war as well. China is Pakistan’s second largest trading partner. As part of his ‘belt and road’ initiative (BRI), President Xi Jinping has announced plans for massive investment in the development of infrastructure for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a distance of 3,000 km. The total investment in the proposed corridor is expected to be about $62 billion. Pakistan, of course, has failed to realise that the CPEC is a debt trap that will eventually make it the 23rd province of China.

China is gradually extending its maritime outreach to the Indian Ocean. In the northern Indian Ocean, China is engaged in acquiring port facilities through its ‘string of pearls’ strategy to enable the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) Navy to operate in the seas around India. It has built ports in Sri Lanka, off Myanmar, in Qatar and Pakistan. Gwadar port on the Makran coast of Pakistan has been leased to China for 40 years. China has also upgraded ports in Chittagong (Bangladesh) and Lamu (Kenya). These ports can be converted to naval bases in due course. 

China’s support to the military-backed regime in Myanmar; efforts at making inroads into Nepal; increasing activities in the Bay of Bengal; its relentless efforts to increase its influence in Bhutan and Bangladesh; its attempts to isolate India in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and keep India’s participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation at a low ebb are all indicators of its intention to bog India down in an unstable neighbourhood. 

Territorial and boundary disputes that are carried over from history and left unresolved carry within them the seeds of future conflict. India’s unresolved territorial and boundary dispute with China and an un-demarcated Line of Actual Control (LAC) on the Indo-Tibetan border do not augur well for long-term peace and stability between these two Asian giants. 

China is steadily enhancing its military capabilities. The military gap between China and India is growing as the latter’s military modernisation is constrained by its low defence expenditure, which is now about 1.5 per cent of the GDP, while China’s defence budget has maintained a steady rate of growth for over a decade. At present, there is a quantitative gap between the PLA and the Indian armed forces. If Indian military modernisation continues to stagnate, this will soon become a qualitative gap as well. With the rapid modernisation of the PLA, China will soon be in a position to dictate terms to India on the settlement of the territorial dispute. 

India is poised to defend its territory against Chinese aggression. However, that capability is not adequate to deter aggression. India must upgrade its military strategy against China from dissuasion to deterrence. Only the capability to take the war into Chinese territory will deter the adversary from initiating another border war. Such capability is provided only by strike formations of the Army, combined with the ability of the Indian Air Force to dominate the skies over Tibet to give Army commanders a free hand and to inflict punitive damage, and the ability of the Indian Navy to dominate the Indian Ocean. India needs at least two Strike Corps to take the war into Chinese territory — one each for Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh.

With Pakistan as its foremost ally in the region, China poses a long-term strategic challenge to India as a competing regional power in Asia. It will remain a major military threat till the territorial dispute is resolved. India needs to take this reality into account and distinguish between what China professes — peaceful co-existence — and what it actually does, and plan accordingly. 

In the near future, a situation of tenuous peace and tranquillity is likely to continue to prevail along India’s Himalayan frontier. It will be punctuated increasingly by patrol face-offs, Chinese transgressions like those at Chumar (2014) and Doklam (2017) and new claims on Indian territory such as the Tawang Tract in Arunachal Pradesh. 

Not relenting on the issue of designating Masood Azhar as a global terrorist by the UNSC is part of China’s game plan to embarrass India in its quest for strategic dominance. India must continue to develop its comprehensive national power and keep its powder dry.

Brig Gurmeet Kanwal (retd) is former Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi