On October 26 and 27, India hosted the United Nations Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee meetings in Mumbai and New Delhi.
The Mumbai meeting was held at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, one of the sites of the November 2008 terror attacks in which 166 people were killed. An audio clip of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) commander Sajid Mir directing terrorists in the attack on Chabad House in Mumbai was played, serving as a reminder to the assembled participants that the “chief planner” of the assault on Mumbai is yet to be brought to justice.
Mir, who is based in Lahore, Pakistan, is designated a terrorist in India and the United States. In addition to the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, he is wanted for his role in other terror attacks in the U.S. and Denmark. He is among several LeT and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terrorists that India and the U.S. have been jointly trying to get designated as terrorists by the UNSC 1267 Sanctions Committee. Their efforts have largely failed because of China’s obstruction of their proposals.
In a recorded speech at the Mumbai meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “all relevant parties should support these resolutions and no nation should stand in their way.”
His remark was aimed at China, which between June and October this year blocked the sanctioning of five Pakistan-based terrorists. In addition to Mir, these included LeT deputy chief Abdur Rehman Makki; JeM deputy leader Abdul Rauf, who is the brother of JeM chief Masood Azhar; deputy chief of the LeT front Falah-I-Insaniyat Foundation Shahid Mahmood; and LeT commander Talha Saeed, who is LeT chief Hafiz Saeed’s son.
Under the United Nations Security Council’s 1267 Al Qaeda Sanctions Committee regime, any U.N. member state can propose the name of an individual or group to be designated as a terrorist. Decisions are made by consensus in the 1267 Sanctions Committee, which comprises all members of the UNSC. A committee member can block blacklisting proposals by raising objections or applying a “technical hold” on a proposal. An individual or entity listed as a terrorist is subjected to an assets freeze, travel ban, and arms embargo.
China used technical holds to block the five latest India-U.S. proposals in the Sanctions Committee, claiming it needed “more time to assess the information to sanction the individual.” It has done so several times in the past as well.
Between 2009 and March 2019 Beijing used technical holds to block four Indian proposals to get JeM chief Masood Azhar designated a terrorist, claiming it needed more time to examine the proposals.
Azhar founded JeM in 2000 after he was released from an Indian jail in 1999 in exchange for 155 people held on a hijacked Indian aircraft. The group has carried out several major attacks on Indian targets, including the Jammu and Kashmir assembly (October 2001), India’s Parliament (December 2001), the Pathankot airbase (January 2016), the Indian Mission in Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan (January 2016), India Army brigade headquarters at Uri (September 2016), and an Indian paramilitary convoy at Pulwama (February 2019).
China voted for JeM’s listing as a terrorist group in 2001, but refused to blacklist its chief for a decade. It was only in May 2019 that it came around to designate Azhar as a terrorist.
So, what underlies China’s voting in the 1267 Committee? The obvious reason is China’s close relationship with Pakistan and their shared hostility to India. However, it is not quite that simple.
Beijing has sometimes supported the sanctioning of Pakistan-based and backed individuals and entities. It voted in favor of listing JeM and LeT as terrorist organizations, for instance. Following the 2008 Mumbai attacks, it backed the inclusion of LeT leaders Hafiz, Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, Haji Muhammad Ashraf, and Mohmoud Mohammad Ahmed Bahaziq in the UNSC sanctions list.
Indian analysts attributed China’s support for the blacklisting of the four LeT leaders in 2008 to Beijing’s apprehension over isolation, given the depth of global outrage at that time over the attacks in Mumbai.
That China is not particularly concerned over isolation anymore was underscored by its rejection of the fourth proposal for blacklisting Azhar on March 13, 2019.
Only a month earlier, JeM’s suicide attack at Pulwama had killed 40 Indian paramilitary personnel. It had even claimed responsibility for the bombing, which severely frayed India-Pakistan relations. The proposal to sanction Azhar enjoyed unprecedented support. It was moved by the United States, France, and Britain, and four other members co-sponsored the proposal. The proposal eventually had 14 co-sponsors; seven countries outside the UNSC backed it too. Yet China blocked it in the 1267 committee. The final vote was 14 to 1.
Six weeks later, on May 1, 2019, China finally supported the proposal to blacklist Azhar. It was hailed as a major political and diplomatic victory for India, an outcome of improving Sino-Indian relations at that point.
However, there were other factors at play. Chinese nationals and CPEC projects in Pakistan were under fire from Baloch militant groups. Apparently, the United States and China had struck a deal under which Washington agreed to back the designation of the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) as a terrorist entity, in return for China supporting Azhar’s blacklisting. That deal cleared the way for Azhar to be declared a U.N.-sanctioned terrorist.
That political considerations, geopolitics, and backroom deals determine support or not for terrorist designations was underscored by the decade-long effort to sanction Azhar.
So, what explains the recent string of technical holds that China applied on proposals to sanction the five LeT and JeM terrorists?
In addition to its continuing bond with Pakistan, the tense Sino-Indian relations over the disputed border and India’s growing proximity to the U.S are likely major reasons for China’s recent decisions. How the logjam over Azhar’s designation was broken provides useful insights into what China expects to support Indian listing proposals.
Beijing is looking to strike a deal with India.
The question is whether such a deal is worth it for India. After all, even if the terrorists are sanctioned, it does not have substantial impact on their capacity for terrorist activity, especially since they continue to be supported on the ground by the Pakistani government.
Terrorist designations are useful in the fight against terrorism. Additionally, India’s relentless efforts in the sanctions committee and other forums have drawn the world’s attention to Pakistan’s support for terrorism and China’s appeasement of that support.
However, these gains may not be worth the enormous diplomatic capital that India continues to invest in these efforts. India must therefore stay clear of striking deals with China to support terrorist designations.