It’s economics, really! What lay behind China’s switch over Masood terror tag

Abhijit Bhattacharyya

While New Delhi’s diplomats and sundry officials can justifiably claim credit over a job well done with regard to “Mission Masood”, having successfully got Beijing to reverse its stand of over a decade and allow the UN Security Council’s sanctions committee to designate Jaish-e-Mohammed founder-chief Masood Azhar as a “global terrorist”, it might be instructive to explore the real reasons that lay behind the Chinese turnaround on May Day 2019.
The Chinese action, though not wholly unexpected or surprising, has undoubtedly stumped large sections of Pakistanis, as it appears from an Islamabad media report: “Observers are perplexed as it came less than a week after an important meeting between the visiting Pakistani top leadership and China’s President Xi Jinping in Beijing, where the former had gone to participate in the BRI Forum.”
Analysts in that country “are intrigued over the question of whether the Chinese President or the foreign minister opt to take Pakistan… into confidence about changing their minds”. Undoubtedly, pertinent questions were posed by the Pakistani media from their point of view. Unfortunately, however, by asking these questions, the Pakistanis are ignoring the reality that their “good questions” don’t necessarily have any “good answers” from China’s perspective. Pakistanis should know by now, if they don’t know already, that diplomacy and international affairs revolve around two (unspoken) basics — the national self-interest of every sovereign state, and weighing the pros and cons of each action, especially pertaining to so serious a matter as international terrorism.
Understandably, China did what it did on May Day 2019 for its national self-interest, and after calculating the pros and cons before taking action. Let us, therefore, try and analyse Beijing’s perspective and peep into the psyche and perspective of the 21st century Hans.
The fundamental factor that determine all policies by Beijing today is development economics. To achieve growth and maintain a lead over each and every country, and particularly the United States and the West, is the core issue and ultimate goal of the Communist Party of China — something that the ruling mandarins in Beijing will not deviate from under any circumstances. There thus emerge myriad factors and multiple actors for China, from which to make a compelling choice.
In the South Asian context, however, the traditional preference, as done in the past by the British (till 1947), the Americans (from 1950s till 9/11 in 2001) and the Chinese (from 1963 till date), has been to give preference to Pakistan with its geo-strategic location over democratic India’s noisy polity and promising, but erratic economics for playing one against the other.
However, two strong currents and counter-currents also began in South Asia following the Soviet Union’s defeat (and ignominious retreat) in Afghanistan in February 1989, and the quick demise of the USSR itself soon afterwards, in December 1991. First, Pakistan started with renewed vigour the military-mullah-mosque power that was unleashed earlier by Zia-ul Haq (1976-1988) to destabilise India, through Jammu and Kashmir, after failing in Punjab’s “Khalistan” movement in the 1980s. And second, New Delhi began its monumental journey for money, market and manufacturing. Consequently, whereas Pakistan fell back, India moved on. Nevertheless China, the “all-weather friend” of Pakistan, being inimical towards India, chose the non-state religious actors of the Pakistani military’s cross-border terrorism to keep New Delhi under check. The harsh geography of Pakistan was the choice of China over the unpredictable economics of India.
That India grew post-1991 is a wondrous reality, the existence of several failures and serious faultlines notwithstanding. However, China’s double- digit growth for two continuous decades created a new situation. It had to constantly scout for new markets for its gargantuan production lines, and thus India could not be ignored for long in China’s own self-interest. For India too, a perceptible change set in the late 20th century.
It’s important to remember here that the ceaseless terror activities of the Pakistani Army and its Inter-Services Intelligence was now transforming global opinion in India’s favour, as China too was being perceived as a co-conspirator, if not a terror-colluder.
Thus, Pakistan infiltrated and then invaded Kargil on the sly in the summer of 1999 and got a befitting bloody nose, followed by a humiliating retreat. And then the 9/11 attack on America, on New York City and Washington DC, in one stroke changed the world’s scenario upside down. The world now saw through Pakistani malevolence and its equally mala fide partner, China, against India.
The 26/11 Mumbai mayhem in 2008 was the ultimate example of Sino-Pakistani entente. Organised by the Pakistani Army-ISI duo (with Hafiz Saeed out in front), which the present Chinese ambassador to India (who then was Beijing’s envoy to Pakistan) had the privilege of seeing as a virtual direct witness, the criminality and murderous assault on India was transparent. The Sino-Pakistani “terror alliance” against India was becoming too conspicuous to be ignored, and too serious to be either denied or hidden.
Despite the terror assault and the loss of lives, India’s slow and steady progress created an economic opportunity for Beijing. Hence began the Sino-Indian bilateral “convergence”. Strange! But not really so. Military deployments at the border and missile technology were seen as a “divergence”. Money and markets became “convergence”, thereby gradually pushing China’s so-called “all-weather” friend Pakistan into the background. India pulled forward and occupied an important space for China’s global aspirations.
Thus, whereas the Sino-Indian bilateral trade in 1999-2000 made a modest beginning, with $539.04 million exports to China, Beijing began with a bang — exporting double the value of India with $1.282 billion to New Delhi. China tasted profit in the Indian market. India’s economics emerged more attractive to China in the 21st century than operating in the turbulent geography of Pakistan, supplemented by a mala fide military and an equally nasty bunch of religious fanatics in Islamabad.
It, therefore, came as a pleasant surprise to China in 2009-2010 when its exports to India fetched $30.824 billion, ending up with a surplus trade balance of $19.207 billion, as India’s exports to China stood at $11.617 billion. The year 2009 was also the one in which India started “Mission Masood” to designate him as a global terrorist.
From now on, it was terror versus trade. Chinese profits from Indian trade and India’s pain from the Sino-Pakistani terror. Thus, when Xi Jinping announced his “BRI/OBOR/CPEC” in 2013, Chinese exports to India had already become astoundingly profitable, with India’s exports to Beijing at $14.824 billion, compared to China’s $51.034 billion exports to India in 2013-2014. China thus had a $36.21 billion surplus. Thereafter, the Chinese trade surplus shot up to $63 billion in 2017-2018, and in 2018-2019 it cannot be less than $52 billion.
It’s simple. Chinese traders are here to stay and play, and make money – in telecommunications, tourism, toys, FMCG, infrastructure, machines and metro rail. For China, India is (one way) revenue and profit, while Pakistan spells expenditure and terror, religious fanaticism and the Army-ISI’s shadow of uncertainty due to the likes of Masood Azhar. It seemed a better option to switch sides without firing a shot to make money, as the CPEC could be in peril too as evident from the IAF strikes in Balakot. Hence the lifting of the “technical objection”. Remember Mao Zedong’s old adage? “One step backwards (today); two steps forward (tomorrow)”!