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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 25 New Delhi June 13, 2015

An Avoidable Ambivalence

Saturday 13 June 2015

by Vinay Kaura

China’s support to India’s quest for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) remains a distant dream. There was no grand gesture from China on India’s bid for a permanent seat in the UNSC during the just-concluded three-day China visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Due to its zero-sum intransigence, Beijing has again shut a window of opportunity to reach out to those in India who harbour deep suspicions, real or perceived, of China’s geopolitical intentions.

 While addressing the students of the Tsinghua University during his recent China visit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi explicitly underlined the positive impact on Sino-Indian bilateral relations of China’s support. 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.”

 The Joint Statement signed between the two Prime Ministers, however, only stated that China “understands and supports India’s aspiration to play a greater role in the United Nations including in the Security Council”. In other words, India has no option but to wait for an unambiguous Chinese support. It has become a customary feature during high-level official visits for the Chinese side to merely “understand and support” India’s aspirations for greater inter-national role. As long as both nuclear-armed Asian rivals find themselves at odds in reshaping international institutions, including the UNSC, Asia can never hope to have a stronger voice in the world.

 In politics, symbols of power are as important as the attributes of power. One of the vital pillars of India’s intense desire for a more respectable position in the international political, economic, and diplomatic realms is the pursuit of a permanent seat in the UNSC, which is often regarded, rightly or wrongly, as the ultimate symbol of being a great power on the interactional stage. 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 which is yet to extend an unequivocal support to India’s bid to become a permanent member of the UNSC.

Past analysis of the official documents and statements concerned shows that China has neither clearly supported nor opposed India’s bid. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India in April 2005 had resulted in establishing a ‘Strategic and Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Prosperity’ between India and China. The Joint Statement declared: “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, had claimed that 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 both countries, which stated: “The Indian side reiterates 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 a greater role in the United Nations.”

 During Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to China in January 2008, the ‘Shared Vision for the 21st Century’ stated: “The 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 under-stands and supports India’s aspirations to play a greater role in the United Nations, including in the Security Council.” Nirupama Rao, former Foreign Secretary, sounded enthusiastic when Chinese President Hu Jintao reportedly assured the visiting Indian President, Pratibha Patil, in 2010 that China was ready to discuss the complex issue of permanent Security Council seat for India. Jintao’s assurance to ‘discuss’ the matter was nothing but Beijing’s hide-and-seek strategy on this issue. In 2010, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao had also reiterated China’s stand to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh: “China attaches great importance to India’s status in international affairs as a large developing country, understands and supports India’s aspiration to play a greater role in the United Nations, including the Security Council.” As recently as in September 2014 during 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.”

 Even the communiqués issued at the multilateral fora like the BRICS meetings or the trilateral Russia, India and China (RIC) forum also stop short of saying anything specific about New Delhi’s bid, other than the now standard sentence, to reiterate the importance that China attaches to the status of India in international affairs. The Joint Statement released after the meeting of the RIC Foreign Ministers on February 2, 2015 had said: “Foreign Ministers of China and Russia reiterated the importance they attached to the status of India in international affairs and supported its aspiration to play a greater role in the United Nations.”

 China, while being publicly noncommittal, has reasons to oppose an Indian seat. As Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has recently remarked, “there are no coincidences in politics. In politics, there’s strategy, geopolitics and interests, which together result in this or that country making this or that step.” Beijing’s stance too is solely driven by the realist logic of balance of power. Any accommodative swing in China’s position on a permanent seat is likely to recalibrate Beijing’s ties with Islamabad as the latter has been vociferous in opposing India’s entry to the SC. Beijing is not likely to upset its “all weather friendship” at this juncture to undermine the centrality of Pakistan in China’s geopolitical calculus.

 China, although in favour of Security Council reform, has a vested interest in maintaining its current privileged position there, institu-tionalised and symbolised by the permanent seat. Beijing fears that India’s entry into the UNSC would lead to a marked reduction in China’s current prestige among the developing countries as well as its pre-eminent global status. Furthermore, a veto-wielding India might become less sensitive and deferential to Chinese interests, particularly on the issue of the Dalai Lama and Tibet. Another repulsive factor for China is India’s solidarity with Japan in making a joint bid for the UNSC membership. In view of the historical, political and strategic differences between the two countries, Beijing is not likely to endorse Japan’s candidature in the foreseeable future.

 India’s frustration at being denied entry into the global ‘elite club’ is compounded by the fact that China is the only developing, non-Western, and Asian country wielding veto power in the UNSC. It cannot be forgotten that India had vigorously supported China’s entry into the UN and the SC as well as the Non-Aligned Movement in the 1950s. Citing Indian diplomats who have seen the relevant documents pertaining to the early 1950s, Shashi Tharoor claims that Nehru “declined a US offer to take the permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council then held, with scant credibility, by Taiwan, urging that it be given to Beijing”. Just because America’s realist offer went against the grain of Nehru’s idealistic vision driven by utopian aspirations of Asian solidarity, India was denied the golden opportunity to become one of the ‘fortunate five’. This fateful decision continues to haunt India.

China has perfected the art of saying neither yes nor no. Delhi’s quest for a permanent seat at the UNSC continues to be stymied by Chinese ambivalence at best, or resistance at worst. Despite Beijing making sympathetic noises in bilateral meetings with Delhi, China has been attempting to defeat the collective diplomatic effort by the G-4 to expand the Security Council’s permanent membership.

 Addressing the Indian community in Paris during his French tour last month, Modi had made a strong pitch for India to be given a permanent seat, arguing that the “time is over when India would ask for a favour; today India is asking for its rights”. It remains to be seen how long Modi’s India will have to wait for its rights to be granted.

Dr Vinay Kaura is an Assistant Professor, Department of International Affairs and Security Studies, and Coordinator, Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice, Jodhpur (Rajasthan).