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View: UN Security Council membership is a card India must play to its advantage


India’s entry into the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) this new year is going to be immensely significant, coming at a time when its Himalayan frontiers are under severe stress because of China, a permanent UNSC member, which is also backing Pakistan’s efforts to re-engineer a negative narrative on Kashmir in New York. So, in a way, this two-year stint is a big opportunity for India. But the challenge will be to make it count.

How? The short answer to that would be by not losing sight of the power play through which countries further their own interests at the UNSC. The idea that the UN functions in some sort of a New York-Geneva bubble, autonomous of the realpolitik among nations, needs to be set aside. China illustrates this approach best.

In 2017, China managed to infiltrate a UNSC resolution on extending the UN mandate in Afghanistan with a Communist Party of China (CPC) phrase ‘[to] create a community of shared future for mankind’ — code for increasing economic dependencies on China so as to control their political choices. The same resolution also endorsed the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) for Afghanistan.

This is nothing odd, but it is a reflection of the changing Chinese political approach towards increasing both its control and influence at the UN. In 1999, China’s contribution to the UN budget was about 1%. Today, it’s about 12%. The Chinese are either president or secretary general in at least six UN organisations, including the UN Industrial Development Organisation (Unido), International Telecommunication Union (ITU), International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

But the most telling shift has been towards UN peacekeeping missions. The unwritten division of labour has been that P5 (five permanent members of the UNSC) countries contribute financially, while other countries provide the troops. That’s how India, and later Bangladesh and Nepal, became major military contributors.

China, however, has upped its contribution on both sides. Its budgetary contribution as a P5 country to peacekeeping operations has gone up from 3% to 14% in the last seven years. In the same period, it has broken into the top 10 countries providing troops on the ground for UN peacekeeping operations. What that does in practical terms in, say, conflict-ridden countries of Africa is give China a shot at either being head or second-in-command in the political and military side of any peacekeeping effort. In 2019, China bagged its first UN special envoy post for the Great Lakes region in Africa.

Piecekeepers to the World
Clearly, the Chinese footprint in the UN has grown rapidly after Xi Jinping became president. According to a September white paper, China has now created an 8,000-strong dedicated ‘UN peacekeeping standby force’ to act as both first responders and peacekeepers with ‘28 units in 10 categories — infantry, engineers, transport, medical, force protection, rapid response, helicopter, transport aircraft, UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), and surface ship units’.

Broadly, what this indicates is that India is entering UNSC at a period of rapid transition where an aspiring superpower is not just trying to unseat other powers, but also laying the basis for new rule-making. For India, that power also happens to be its biggest neighbour, adversary and immediate threat. Yet, it would be unwise to run a one-country foreign policy, more so as aUNSC member.

What’s needed in India’s eighth stint at UNSC is a clear approach, signalling that its decisions will be guided by its core strategic and political interests. Beijing must know that if it wants to take up Kashmir, New Delhi will not hold itself back on Hong Kong or Taiwan. In a fast-changing regional security environment, India should have no qualms in recognising that UNSC membership, even as a non-permanent member, is an important card that it must play to its advantage.

For years, India has maintained a policy of ambivalence at UN. This is best reflected by the fact that it has regularly abstained from crucial votes. Abstaining by itself can be part of a tactical gamble. But avoiding to take a position just to keep friends in all camps happy may not be a viable alternative any longer. India’s security stands visibly threatened and it needs friends in the face of an adversary unwilling, so far, to negotiate.

GoI has demonstrated its intent by taking the conflict with China into the economic arena. This is bound to now play out at New York. So, a similar approach on a global scale will help make the term at UNSC not just relevant but, perhaps, also fruitful.

The High, Not Nigh, Table
Three important factors will be critical. First, to maintain at all times congruency between New Delhi’s overall strategic priorities and its UNSC decision matrix. There cannot be two separate sets of principles. Second, to be politically nimble, so as to reach an advantageous position to tip the scales, rather than wage some lonely ideological battle. Finally, at least in the Indian context, never be in denial that UNSC is about bilateral power play, like any other conversation.

Ultimately, in the current environment, GoI will have to bear in mind that India’s record at UNSC will be judged not so much by what it did on global causes, but by how it furthered its core national interests at the high table.

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