UN Security Council is set to vote on sanctioning a Pakistani militant — China may stand in the way

Key Points
  • After Jaish-e-Mohammed, a Pakistan-based militant group, claimed credit for Feb. 14's suicide bombing that escalated tensions between India and Pakistan, the UN is set to vote on whether to designate the group's leader as a terrorist.
  • While JeM has been listed as a terror group since 2001, efforts to blacklist its leader have not been successful — February's proposal marks the Security Council's fourth attempt in 10 years.
  • China, a permanent veto-wielding member of the Security Council and Pakistan's close ally, blocked the three previous attempts.
Indian protesters hold a scratched photo of Jaish-e-Mohammed group chief, Masood Azhar, as they shout slogans against Pakistan during a protest in Mumbai on Feb. 15, 2019.
Indranil Mukherjee | AFP | Getty Images

A series of retaliatory air strikes between India and Pakistan last month escalated already tense relations between the two South Asian nuclear powers. A UN vote set for Wednesday could further increase tensions — and China may be the key.

After Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed claimed responsibility for February's suicide attack that killed 40 Indian security officers in Kashmir, three members of the United Nations Security Council moved a proposal to sanction JeM leader Masood Azhar as a global terrorist.

If passed, the proposal from France, the United Kingdom and the United States would subject Azhar to an assets freeze, travel ban and arms embargo.

On Wednesday, the Security Council is set to vote on whether to designate Azhar as a global terrorist. While JeM has been listed by the UN as a terror group since 2001, efforts to blacklist its leader have not been successful — February's proposal marks the fourth attempt in 10 years.

China, a permanent veto-wielding member of the Security Council and Pakistan's "all-weather" ally, blocked previous attempts in 2009, 2016 and 2017, claiming in the second instance that the militant leader did not meet "the Council's requirements" to be a terrorist.

Although Pakistan has clamped down on other militant groups such as the local Taliban, JeM continues to operate publicly in the country. Azhar openly runs camps in several towns across Pakistan — including a camp in Balakot, which India said its Air Force hit during a strike on Feb. 25.

Indian politicians and experts have suggested that Islamabad supports the group because it helps Pakistani political aims. The country "pursues its strategic goals by sponsoring, training, equipping, and financing terror groups that attack targets in India, Afghanistan, and Iran," Indian Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor wrote in a recent commentary.

As Wednesday's vote draws closer, all eyes are on China — which has not given a firm indication of whether it will again wield its veto.

"My suspicion is that (China) will not budge despite American pressure and India's entreaties. It considers its alliance with Pakistan to be far too important," said Sumit Ganguly, an Indiana University professor of political science.

'Responsible and serious discussions' needed

The U.S., among other Security Council members, has called on China to allow the vote to pass.

"I would say that the United States and China share a mutual interest in achieving regional stability and peace, and that a failure to designate Azhar would run counter to this goal," U.S. State Department spokesperson Robert Palladino said Tuesday.

Despite mounting international pressure, however, China has not taken a stand against the militant leader.

Monday comments from Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang highlighted the possibility that the nation could block the Security Council proposal for a fourth time.

In response to a question on Beijing's position on the vote, Lu said "responsible and serious discussions" are needed to find "a lasting solution."

"We already stressed China's position on the listing of terrorist organizations and individuals in the UN Security Council 1267 Committee on many occasions," Lu said, referring to the organization's al-Qaida Sanctions Committee. "China has all along participated in relevant discussions in a responsible manner and in strict accordance with the rules of procedure and provisions of the 1267 Committee."

"Only by making a decision through responsible and serious discussions can we find a lasting solution," he added.

Beijing's $62 billion 'dilemma'

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan attends talks with China's President Xi Jinping (not pictured) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov. 2, 2018.
Thomas Peter | AFP | Getty Images

Beijing currently faces a dilemma in the decision to blacklist Azhar, according to Ananth Krishnan, a visiting fellow at research group Brookings India.

In the past, China would have "looked the other way" when dealing with terrorist groups in Pakistan — as long as the military ensured groups that targeted China are "kept in check," according to Krishnan.

However, its massive infrastructure investment into Pakistan may have changed Beijing's calculus.

Pakistan currently plays an important role in China's massive Belt and Road Initiative — an investment scheme introduced by China as a means to create a vast global infrastructure network.

China has poured $62 billion into a series of infrastructure projects to build the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a railroad that will traverse from Western China's Xinjiang to Pakistan's port of Gwadar. When complete, the corridor will reduce transport costs for Chinese exports by more than half, according to some projections.

That stake China has in Pakistan will influence Beijing's desire for stability in the region, Krishnan said. "What CPEC has done is that it's kind of making China a big stakeholder in many aspects of Pakistan development."

"Chinese officials know that the terrorism situation in Pakistan is an extremely big obstacle for the Pakistani economy, and because of that, for China's investments as well," he added. "It's going to be very interesting to see whether this will change China's decision."