Sushma Swaraj urges UNSC reforms: Main challenge is securing China's support for India's permanent seat

Vinay Kaura
India had strongly supported China’s entry into the United Nations and the Security Council as well.

New Delhi has once again demanded comprehensive reforms of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), emphasising that India deserves a place at the UN high table as a permanent member.

Addressing the meeting of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Council of Foreign Ministers, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj remarked, "India firmly believes in the efficacy of multilateralism and adherence to the principles of the United Nations Charter. It is imperative to have comprehensive reforms of the United Nations and its Security Council to make it more representative and effective."

In most immediate terms, Swaraj was asking for the SCO's support for India's candidature for the non-permanent membership of the UNSC for the years 2021-2022. But that is not what India is actually aiming for. India has served as a non-permanent member of the UNSC for seven terms €" 1950-51, 1967-68, 1972-73, 1977-78, 1984-85, 1991-92 and most recently in 2011-12. It needs to be mentioned that India got a record number of 187 of the 190 votes during the election process at the UN General Assembly in October 2010 for the 2011-12 term.

However, India has been at the forefront to seek expansion of the UNSC in permanent categories. India €" along with Germany, Brazil and Japan €" has been coordinating its efforts through a group called G-4 to demand a comprehensive reform and expansion of the UNSC that reflect the geopolitical and geoeconomic realities of the present times.

The SCO was founded in Shanghai in 2001 by Russia, China, Kyrgyz Republic, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. India, which was granted an observer status in 2005, became full member of the group in 2017 along with Pakistan. The fact that China is the most important stakeholder in the long-term success of the SCO as a multilateral regional bloc, India's demand for UNSC reforms at the platform of the SCO assumes special significance.

The reason is not far to seek. Securing Chinese support for India's quest for a permanent seat on the UNSC has proved to be one of the biggest challenges for Indian foreign policy. Having received an unprecedented electoral mandate in the just-concluded parliamentary elections, the Modi government is likely to focus its diplomatic energies on how to secure Chinese consent to India's candidature for a permanent seat in the UNSC.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is aware of the challenges ahead. While addressing the students of the Tsinghua University during his 2015 China visit, Modi had underlined the positive impact of China's support for a permanent seat for India at the UNSC. He said, "China's support for India's permanent membership of a reformed UNSC and for India's membership of export control regimes like Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) will do more than just strengthen our international cooperation. It will take our relationship to a new level. It will give Asia a stronger voice in the world."

However, the joint statement that came out of the visit only stated that China "understands and supports India's aspiration to play a greater role in the United Nations, including in the Security Council."

It has become a customary feature during high-level official visits for the Chinese side to merely "understand and support" India's aspirations for a greater international role.

The fate of India's bid is mainly in the hands of the veto-wielding permanent members of the UNSC, and China is the only veto-wielding permanent member that has yet to extend unequivocal support to India's bid to become a permanent member. Any accommodative shift in China's position on the permanent seat is likely to recalibrate Beijing's ties with Islamabad, as the latter has been vocal in resisting India's permanent entry into the UNSC.

Beijing is not likely to upset its "all weather friend" at this juncture, undermining the centrality of Pakistan in the China's geopolitical calculus. Beijing may also fear that India's entry into the UNSC would be an enormous loss for China's international status among the third world countries. Another important factor that China does not ignore has been India's solidarity with Japan €" China's arch rival €" in making a joint bid for the UNSC permanent membership.

Past analysis of official documents and statements shows that China has neither clearly supported nor opposed India's bid. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's visit to India in April 2005 resulted in a "Strategic and Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Prosperity" with India. The joint statement declared that "Indian side reiterated its aspirations for permanent membership of the UN Security Council...China attaches great importance to the status of India in international affairs. It understands and supports India's aspirations to play an active role in the UN and international affairs."

India's former foreign secretary, Shivshankar Menon, has claimed that former Chinese president Hu Jintao, during his 2006 India visit, had assured India that China "would not be an obstacle" to Delhi's quest for permanent membership of the UNSC. Despite these assurances, no concrete guarantee emerged in the subsequent joint declaration signed by the two countries.

During then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to China in January 2008, the "Shared Vision for the 21st Century" took this line: "Indian side reiterates its aspirations for permanent membership of the UN Security Council. The Chinese side attaches great importance to India's position as a major developing country in international affairs. The Chinese side understands and supports India's aspirations to play a greater role in the United Nations, including in the Security Council."

Nirupama Rao, then Indian foreign secretary, had sounded upbeat when China's president Hu Jintao had assured the visiting former president Pratibha Patil in 2010 that Beijing was ready to discuss the complex issue of a permanent Security Council seat for India. Yet that assurance was simply a continuation of Beijing's hide-and-seek strategy on this issue. In September 2014, during President Xi Jinping's India visit, the joint statement declared, "China attaches great importance to India's status in international affairs as a large developing country, and understands and supports India's aspiration to play a greater role in the United Nations including in the Security Council."

A careful reading of the paragraph pertaining to China's support for India's membership of the UNSC shows that even the wording of the statements has remained unchanged over recent years. China has perfected the knotty art of saying neither yes nor no.

The 2017 Doka La military stand-off had put a temporary break on high-level interactions between the two leaders, who resumed it last year at Wuhan in China. However, no joint communiqué was issued during the Wuhan 'informal summit'.

India's frustration at being denied entry into the world's most elite club is compounded by the fact that China is the non-Western, Asian country wielding veto power in the UNSC. What irritates Indians the most is that fact that India had strongly supported China's entry into the United Nations and the Security Council as well. It has been credibly claimed that Jawaharlal Nehru had declined a reported American offer in the 1950s to take the permanent seat on the UNSC, then held, by Taiwan, and urged it to be given instead to Beijing. Because the US offer went against the grain of Nehru's idealistic vision of Asian solidarity, India lost a historic opportunity to become one of the 'fortunate five'.

Delhi's quest for a permanent seat on the UNSC continues to meet with Chinese ambivalence at best, or resistance at worst. Beijing may have made sympathetic noises in bilateral meetings with New Delhi. However, it has been frustrating all diplomatic efforts at the global level to expand the Security Council's permanent membership.

Modi's electoral campaign focused primarily on making India more secure, powerful and great if he is returned to power with a decisive mandate. The people of India have reposed their faith again on Modi's leadership. Getting a permanent seat at the global high table has long been a dream of most of Indians, irrespective of their ideological affiliations. It remains to be seen whether the Modi government 2.0 will be able to make China blink in the next five years.

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