The Modi government needs to retaliate, though perhaps now unwilling to risk provoking China before the Lok Sabha polls.
On March 13, China blocked, for the fourth time over the past decade, the listing of Masood Azhar, head of Jaish-e-Mohammed, by the UN Security Council’s 1267 Committee. The resolution this time was not moved by India but by a dozen-odd members, including veto-wielding permanent members France, Britain and the United States, but regrettably not Russia. Notably, Australia and Japan were among them, who along with the US and India form the “Quadrilateral”, perceived by China as an antithetical grouping of democracies in the Indo-Pacific. However, missing from it were the current two Asian UNSC non-permanent members, Kuwait and Indonesia. Thus, the government’s spin that the entire global community was aligned with India against Pakistan and China might be hyperbolic.
It may be recalled China did not veto the listing of the top leadership of the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba on December 10, 2008 by the 1267 Committee, including Hafiz Saeed, two weeks after the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai that traumatised India and its financial capital. It is possible the immensity of the attack, the loss of Indian and foreign lives, including those of citizens of major powers, made it impossible for China to defy the emerging consensus. It’s also possible that the Pakistan People’s Party government, elected a year earlier after the dastardly assassination of Benazir Bhutto, didn’t push China. Then foreign secretary Shivshankar Menon, writing recently, argues while instinctively he felt the military punishment of LeT was necessary, in retrospect US actions like giving India access to arch spy-cum-facilitator David Coleman Headley justified restraint.
Why then is China acting differently on the listing of JeM’s founder Masood Azhar? First, it is a more assertive and less risk-averse China under Xi Jinping. Domestically he has ruthlessly consolidated power, even jailing possible rivals, creating a personality cult rivalling that of Mao Zedong. He has put China on a path to be a global power. India, which China has sought to contain since the 1962 Sino-Indian war, is seen as an obstacle to be countered with greater vigour while keeping open useful doors of trade and commerce. Thus, the relationship has cooperation, friction and even possible conflict conflated in even measure. Pakistan as an ally in this venture was elevated from a mere strategic military asset to a military-economic pawn with the unfurling of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in 2017. The intrusion by Chinese military forces at Doklam two years ago was to test India’s close treaty ties with Bhutan. While the Indian military, by timely intervention, stalled that incursion, the issue lingered as reports indicate Chinese forces have bivouacked for the winter rather than withdraw to their winter quarters in Tibet, as in the past.
The Indian diplomatic strategy rested, besides rustling up members co-sponsoring the resolution listed above, on using the Saudi and UAE Crown Princes to bring pressure on Pakistan. The Saudis and Emiratis are the key nations financially bailing out Pakistan with handouts of over $12 billion. Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke protocol to receive the much-berated Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at Delhi airport to lure a Pakistani ally into his corner. The return of downed Indian pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman in literally 72 hours by Pakistan seemed to confirm the clout of the US-Saudi-Emirati grouping in conditioning Pakistani conduct. There were two flaws in this assessment. One, Pakistan has counter leverages in dealing with the Gulf powers, being their last resource for nuclear weapons were Iran to move in that direction. Two, to obtain more than cosmetic concessions and, in particular, to have them begin dismantling Pakistani military’s core relationship with jihadi outfits. Pakistan must have demanded a resumption of the dialogue and a discussion of Kashmir, which the Narendra Modi government has avoided. It has instead resorted to a solution to the Kashmir imbroglio using brute force. The Saudi foreign minister probably carried that message. He returned empty-handed as Mr Modi cannot concede on a dialogue weeks before the Lok Sabha elections, when jingoism prevails in the aftermath of the Balakot airstrikes. A Chinese veto thereafter was inevitable as Pakistan would not want its terror machine to be degraded before getting India to the negotiating table. Listing by the 1267 Committee would have made it mandatory for Pakistan and other nations to disrupt the ability of the group to travel, acquire weapons, raise funds, etc. The Financial Action Task Force, which is keeping Pakistan on the Grey List, could punish Pakistan for non-compliance with the resolution.
At that stage, it was clear China would not abandon Pakistan. President Xi Jinping additionally would hardly wish to give Prime Minister Modi a win before the crucial election as a weakened Mr Modi, even if re-elected, or a less aggressive new leader would be preferable. The Modi government also erred in assuming that the April 2018 informal summit at Wuhan had provided enough ballast to Sino-Indian relations to override the Chinese geo-political imperatives. In fact, Mr Modi’s personal diplomacy to defuse the post-Doklam friction may have been seen by China as kowtowing by the Indian government. The subsequent distancing by the government from the 60th anniversary celebrations of the Dalai Lama’s arrival in India in 1959 would have supplemented the Chinese belief of India being an appeasing power.
The Modi government needs to retaliate, though perhaps now unwilling to risk provoking China before the Lok Sabha polls. This could be through smart moves to convey to China that it has breached India’s core concerns about terrorism emanating from Pakistan. It could include a more open engagement with the Dalai Lama and participation in the 60th anniversary celebrations. Imbalanced trade is another element, although India must not breach WTO rules when imposing duties on Chinese products. Chinese phones have captured 71.2 per cent of imported phones’ share. But in pharmaceuticals, fertilisers and transistors the Indian market is important for China. The BJP government erred in not creating local capacity to counter these dependencies. India should join the US and the West in blocking Huawei’s ingress into 5G technology transition in India. Indian lobbies will resist this but national interests and not crony capitalists must prevail. Former British statesman Harold Wilson had said a week is a long time in politics. China proved that by literally evaporating the impact of Balakot in the public discourse. The present Indian government has badly misread Mr Xi’s China; it is back to basics from May onwards.