Eye on China is a weekly bulletin offering news and analysis related to the Middle Kingdom. This week, we cover China’s role amid Indo-Pak tensions; the lead-up to the annual Two Sessions; Huawei’s big media campaign and a lot more.
1. Beijing’s Balancing Act
The tensions between India and Pakistan over the past few weeks have put China in an expected, yet interesting spot. China has deep interests in Pakistan – CPEC, a strong defense relationship and terrorism concerns related to Xinjiang. At the same time, it has a growing economic relationship with India and wants to work with New Delhi in the context of the broader geopolitical competition with the US. Consequently, what’s emerged from Beijing is a balancing act, which might not be easy to sustain in the long run. Over the past week, there were four responses by the Chinese foreign ministry during its regular briefings. Fundamentally they called for India and Pakistan to “exercise restraint, take measures conducive to promoting dialogue and work actively to contribute to the lasting peace and stability in South Asia.” At the same time on the specific issue of Masood Azhar’s listing, the ministry said that UNSC “1267 Committee has detailed criteria for the listing and designation procedures for terrorist entities and individuals. China will continue to participate in the discussions”… in a “responsible manner.” For many in India, this implies that Beijing is unlikely to yield on Azhar’s listing. On March 1, with Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman returning, the ministry called it Pakistani “goodwill,” encouraging both sides to “take substantive steps in resolving relevant disputes through consultations and dialogues.”
But then there was a meeting between the foreign ministers of Russia-China-India in Wuzhen. The joint communique issued after the talks is a document that addresses a broad range of issues from terrorism, the situation in Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, sustainable development, climate change and even an arms race in space. But on the specific point of terrorism, it says that “those committing, orchestrating, inciting or supporting terrorist acts must be held accountable and brought to justice in accordance with existing international commitments on countering terrorism, including the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, relevant UN Security Council resolutions and the FATF standards, international treaties, including on the basis of the principle ‘extradite or prosecute…’” In addition, at the presser after the talks, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that it was “especially important” to “eradicate the breeding grounds of terrorism and extremism,” adding that China will continue to play a “constructive role as a mutual friend.” He also, however, stated “At the same time, we believe that Pakistan has always been opposed to terrorism.” India’s External Affairs Minister added to that saying, “As far as joint strategy is concerned, you just heard foreign minister Wang Yi’s speech. What he said during his concluding statement, he reiterated here, and he said that we would cooperate on eradicating the breeding grounds of terrorism.”
However, a later Foreign Ministry explanation of Wang’s remarks to the Hindustan Times tells us that he meant the international community must “actively promote political solutions to hotspot issues, strengthen dialogue and exchanges among civilizations, promote common development and prosperity of all countries and fundamentally eradicate the breeding ground of terrorism and extremist ideas.”
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi also placed an “emergency telephone call” to Wang on the night of February 27. Qureshi reportedly hoped the Chinese side will continue to play a constructive role in easing the current tension. According to the Chinese readout of the call, Wang “stressed that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries should be earnestly respected, and that the Chinese side is unwilling to see acts violating the norms governing international relations.” It’s interesting that Beijing had until then not used the sovereignty and territorial integrity line in public statements till this one. The only other place where it found a mention was in the RIC joint communique, which to me appears standard in such a document.
The balancing act is captured well in remarks by Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS University of London, in this CNN report. “China cannot afford to be seen as failing Pakistan, but at the same time I don’t think the Chinese really want to pick a fight with the Indians over this.” Ananth Krishnan’s piece in The Print also captures this balancing act well, while offering some insight into what Beijing could do with regard to the new UNSC proposal on Masood Azhar. Keep in mind, Beijing did reportedly delay and dilute the first UNSC resolution on Pulwama.
He writes: “With the US, France and the UK moving the fourth application Wednesday to list Azhar, who claimed responsibility for the Pulwama attack, it remains to be seen if Beijing will follow the example of 2008, when it didn’t stop Saeed from being listed. What’s different, this time around, is a China that not only has greater stakes in Pakistan but also, under Xi, appears less concerned about the prospect of being diplomatically isolated — even on the clear-cut matter of designating a terrorist.”
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