Why is China blocking the terrorist designation of a Pakistani militant?

Masood Azhar is the head of the Pakistan-based Islamist group Jaish-e-Mohammad. India accuses the group of bloody attacks and wants Azhar designated as a terrorist, but China is standing in the way.

Tensions flared between India and Pakistan in February after a bomb attack on a bus in India-administered Kashmir killed over 40 Indian paramilitary soldiers. The Pakistani Islamist militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) claimed responsibility for the attack.

After the incident, India renewed demands that Pakistan crack down on homegrown terrorism and hand over JeM's leader, Masood Azhar. The Islamist ideologue and the JeM are thought to be responsible for several terror attacks in India, including a 2001 attack on the Indian parliament in New Delhi, and a 2016 strike on an air base in the northwestern city of Pathankot that killed 17 people and injured dozens.

Read more: What is Jaish-e-Mohammed?

India has repeatedly called on the international community to designate Azhar as a terrorist. On February 27, France moved a proposal to designate Azhar as a terrorist and impose sanctions under the UN's al Qaeda sanctions committee.

All permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) except one ­– China - endorsed the designation. For New Delhi, China's resistance is further proof that Beijing is politically aligned with Islamabad.

But Beijing said there was not enough evidence against Azhar and that a "thorough investigation" was needed. As the UNSC considers what to do next, Azhar's importance for Beijing has come under the spotlight.

India-Pakistan rivalry: Kashmiris pay a high price

An unprecedented danger?

On February 27, Pakistan's military said that it had shot down two Indian fighter jets over disputed Kashmir. A Pakistani military spokesman said the jets were shot down after they'd entered Pakistani airspace. It is the first time in history that two nuclear-armed powers have conducted air strikes against each other.

India-Pakistan rivalry: Kashmiris pay a high price

India drops bombs inside Pakistan

The Pakistani military has released this image to show that Indian warplanes struck inside Pakistani territory for the first time since the countries went to war in 1971. India said the air strike was in response to a recent suicide attack on Indian troops based in Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan said there were no casualties and that its airforce repelled India's aircraft.

India-Pakistan rivalry: Kashmiris pay a high price

No military solution

Some Indian civil society members believe New Delhi cannot exonerate itself from responsibility by accusing Islamabad of creating unrest in the Kashmir valley. A number of rights organizations demand that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government reduce the number of troops in Kashmir and let the people decide their fate.

India-Pakistan rivalry: Kashmiris pay a high price

No end to the violence

On February 14, at least 41 Indian paramilitary police were killed in a suicide bombing near the capital of India-administered Kashmir. The Pakistan-based Jihadi group, Jaish-e-Mohammad, claimed responsibility. The attack, the worst on Indian troops since the insurgency in Kashmir began in 1989, spiked tensions and triggered fears of an armed confrontation between the two nuclear-armed powers.

India-Pakistan rivalry: Kashmiris pay a high price

A bitter conflict

Since 1989, Muslim insurgents have been fighting Indian forces in the Indian-administered part of Kashmir - a region of 12 million people, about 70 percent of whom are Muslim. India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars since independence in 1947 over Kashmir, which they both claim in full but rule in part.

India-Pakistan rivalry: Kashmiris pay a high price

India strikes down a militant rebellion

In October 2016, the Indian military has launched an offensive against armed rebels in Kashmir, surrounding at least 20 villages in Shopian district. New Delhi accused Islamabad of backing the militants, who cross over the Pakistani-Indian "Line of Control" and launch attacks on India's paramilitary forces.

India-Pakistan rivalry: Kashmiris pay a high price

Death of a Kashmiri separatist

The security situation in the Indian part of Kashmir deteriorated after the killing of Burhan Wani, a young separatist leader, in July 2016. Protests against Indian rule and clashes between separatists and soldiers have claimed hundreds of lives since then.

India-Pakistan rivalry: Kashmiris pay a high price

The Uri attack

In September 2016, Islamist militants killed at least 17 Indian soldiers and wounded 30 in India-administered Kashmir. The Indian army said the rebels had infiltrated the Indian part of Kashmir from Pakistan, with initial investigations suggesting that the militants belonged to Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad group, which has been active in Kashmir for over a decade.

India-Pakistan rivalry: Kashmiris pay a high price

Rights violations

Indian authorities banned a number of social media websites in Kashmir after video clips showing troops committing grave human rights violations went viral on the Internet. One such video that showed a Kashmiri protester tied to an Indian army jeep - apparently as a human shield - generated outrage on social media.

India-Pakistan rivalry: Kashmiris pay a high price

Demilitarization of Kashmir

Those in favor of an independent Kashmir want Pakistan and India to step aside and let the Kashmiri people decide their future. "It is time India and Pakistan announce the timetable for withdrawal of their forces from the portions they control and hold an internationally supervised referendum," Toqeer Gilani, the president of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front in Pakistani Kashmir, told DW.

India-Pakistan rivalry: Kashmiris pay a high price

No chance for secession

But most Kashmir observers don't see it happening in the near future. They say that while the Indian strategy to deal strictly with militants and separatists in Kashmir has partly worked out, sooner or later New Delhi will have to find a political solution to the crisis. Secession, they say, does not stand a chance.

China's interest in Pakistan

Beijing repeatedly asserts that it is against terrorism, but justified its UNSC vote by saying there wasn't enough evidence against Azhar while citing "procedural problems" with the UNSC.

According to Liu Xiaoxue, an India expert at the Asia-Pacific Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, lack of evidence is a common issue with attacks thought to be carried out by JeM.

Read more: China presses Afghanistan-Pakistan rapprochement

"Whenever an attack happens, India always immediately says that it was directed by Azhar's organization, but gives no evidence. Every time a similar incident occurs, India immediately accuses Pakistan, but cannot produce evidence," said Liu.

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Beijing's apparent closeness with Islamabad also has an economic motivation. According to Christian Wagner of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin, the Pakistani army is an essential partner for China in developing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a massive infrastructure initiative worth tens of billions of dollars.

"For China, the army is a more dependable partner compared to elected governments," he said, adding that if China voted to designate Azhar as a terrorist, it could negatively impact Beijing's relations with Pakistan's army.

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The economic risks of terrorism

But Wagner pointed out that the geopolitical situation has changed and the Pakistani army now has to decide on its strategy vis-à-vis militants before China will take its own stance.

"What is the purpose of these groups, if they lead to Pakistan's inclusion in the Financial Action Task Force's blacklist? What consequences would that have on the financial markets?" said Wagner, adding that the Pakistani military is realizing the importance of strategic stability for economic growth.

Read more: Pakistan says 'action being taken against Jaish-e-Mohammed' militant group

For Pakistan, financial restrictions from the international community would cause severe damage. "The West, especially the US, has a lot of influence over all financial institutions. If the US and India decide to do something against Pakistan, then Pakistan may face difficulties in getting assistance from those financial institutions," Pakistan's former finance minister, Syed Salman Shah, told DW.

Nevertheless, China's objection at the UNSC may have more to do with India than with Pakistan, economist Azra Talat Saeed said.

Read more: China pledges aid to Pakistan amid financial crisis

"If China has blocked declaring Masood Azhar a global terrorist it is because of its confrontation with India, not because of its affection with Islamabad," said Saeed.  "India's growing closeness with the US and its support for Tibetan leader Dalai Lama are also reasons why China does not support India," the expert added.

While geopolitical rivalry prevents China and India from reaching an agreement, tensions between India and Pakistan seem to have subsided. New Delhi is keen on pursuing Azhar internationally rather than engaging in a direct confrontation with either Pakistan or China. This strategy seems to have helped somewhat and France has frozen Masood's assets. Paris is also attempting to place him on an EU list of terror suspects.

Read more: Nuclear fears abound after India-Pakistan military escalation

A 'test' for India

Dhruva Jaishankar, a fellow at Brookings India, told DW that designating Azhar as a terrorist is extremely important for India, even if the move will mostly be a symbolic gesture. Pakistan has not cracked down on designated groups in the past and Jaish-e-Mohammad is already listed," Jaishankar said.

A terrorist label for Azhar may not bring immediate results for New Delhi or enable Indian officials to arrest or capture him. However, designating him as a global terrorist will be "a key test of the international community's willingness to take terrorism against India seriously," Jaishankar added.

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