On Wednesday, the United Nations Security Council designated the chief of Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed,  Maulana Masood Azhar, a global terrorist. This became possible as Pakistan’s most ardent – and veto-wielding – supporter, China, finally relented from its decade-long refrain that this decision must not be pushed through in any hurry; that before making any such decision effective, time and patience was needed to build conviction and consensus among all participating members.

It was way back in 2009, after the so-called 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai, that India first brought this proposal to the Security Council. Subsequent proposals were made by three other veto holders – the United States, Britain and France – with India’s time-tested friend Russia (which has lately become closer to both China and Pakistan) indirectly extending its promise of support. Over the years, most other non-permanent members of the UNSC also came around in support of this proposal, leaving China standing alone and beginning to be censured for protecting a nefarious terrorist based in Pakistan.

With the UN Sanctions Committee being unable to clinch the deal for the last 10 years, major powers like France took the lead in declaring Masood Azhar a global terrorist at the national level, further isolating China.

This time around, it was the mid-February Pulwama attacks in Indian-administered Kashmir that saw France, Britain and the United States reviving the Azhar issue in a joint proposal for the UN Sanctions Committee’s meeting in mid-March. China, this time, appeared reluctant to interfere; it waited until almost the very last hour to put in place its “technical hold,” once again potentially putting this issue in the deep freeze for the next six months. 

This was the fourth time that China had invoked a “technical hold” asking the Sanctions Committee for more discussion. However, within a matter of days, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Beijing’s ambassador in New Delhi, Luo Zhaohui, began talking about an early resolution, and in less than six weeks’ time, China finally acquiesced to the proposal.  Indeed, on February 21, China signed a joint UNSC communiqué condemning the Pulwama terrorist attack, underlining how terrorism should never be used for geopolitical objectives.

This change of heart by China may have been triggered by the fact that its lingering “technical hold” had pushed the administration of US President Donald Trump (already in a major trade war with Beijing) to propose last month that the Azhar issue be debated at the Security Council table. This would have exposed China’s delegates to having to present their defense of Azhar in an open public forum, as opposed to closed-door parleys with the Sanctions Committee.

This may have triggered a rethink between the pragmatic Chinese and Pakistani deep states on whether Azhar had outlived his usefulness, becoming a liability rather than an asset against India

Meanwhile Pakistan, in the face of the rising costs of its stance and in view of rising pressure, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmud Qureshi began publicizing reports about Azhar being seriously ill, and that he should not be dragged into courts unless there was serious evidence against him. This may have triggered a rethink between the pragmatic Chinese and Pakistani deep states on whether Azhar had outlived his usefulness, becoming a liability rather than an asset against India.

It is interesting that Beijing was to communicate its decision to the Security Council barely a day after Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan returned home after attending China’s Belt and Road summit in Beijing. During that visit, Khan held several bilateral meetings with various Chinese leaders including President Xi Jinping. Surely, Azhar would have been discussed during these deliberations. However, to minimize any hurt to Pakistan, even the day before China conveyed its decision to the Security Council, its Foreign Ministry refused to give any timeline, simply parroting the party line of this issue being “properly resolved” at an early date.

As for Pakistan, it has criticized this decision as politically motivated, yet promised to respect it and implement it. 

But Pakistan’s track record in implementing its international obligations has been mixed at best. Also, to add to both Pakistan’s and China’s woes, the past year has seen the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF) becoming super-active in tightening the noose on Pakistan, placing it on its “gray list” and threatening to “blacklist” it by June, which would have serious implications. It has accused Pakistan of failing to put an end to financial provisioning for various terrorist outfits within its borders and asked it to report having implemented 27 specific decisions recommended by the FATF in this regard. 

The fact that FATF vice-president China is due to take over the presidency in October may have also weighed in Beijing’s calculations. Given the negative publicity China has received over its treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang and for protecting Azhar, this would have surely put China under far more scrutiny by various stakeholders.

Finally, India’s recent diplomatic overdrive, especially Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s anti-terror campaign during all his hyperactive bilateral and multilateral interactions with major leaders, including Xi Jinping, also deserves to be acknowledged. There are speculations that the Azhar breakthrough may have already been clinched, in principle, during Modi’s informal summit with Xi in Wuhan in April last year.

The timing of this announcement by Beijing will also be subject to speculation, as it is expected to boost the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s chances in the ongoing Indian general elections, as it will now be able to project the Security Council’s Azhar designation as a major foreign-policy victory against both China and Pakistan. But it may also call for a reining in of expectations from this singular decision.

Taking to Twitter, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday, “This long-awaited action is a victory for American diplomacy and the international community against terrorism, and an important step towards peace in South Asia.” But even a cursory reality check tells us that this designation of Azhar as a global terrorist may end up being nothing more than a symbolic gesture. The case of another nefarious terrorist, Hafiz Saeed, perhaps remains the most apt here.

Way back in 2012, the administration of US president Barack Obama announced a US$10 million bounty for information leading to Hafiz Saeed’s conviction. In spite of all the poverty and bankruptcy in Pakistan, that bag of dollars has not lured anyone into action. At best he has been occasionally put into “protective custody,” and the Pakistani courts have actually exonerated him of all the charges. Hafiz Saeed not only continues to roam free across Pakistan, he actually launched a political party that fielded 80 candidates for the National Assembly and another 185 for provincial legislatures in Pakistan’s elections last July.

This indicates that the fate of Masood Azhar may not be any different. It also means that the challenges to India’s continued anti-terror campaign do not end here.