Since the early 1990s, India has made its ambition to hold a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) abundantly clear. Over time, New Delhi has worked aggressively towards this end. While the international community builds consensus over UNSC reforms through the UN’s intergovernmental bureaucracy, New Delhi has actively seized all opportunities to be present on the UNSC by holding non-permanent, two-year terms. India has previously served on the Council seven times. In 2020, India was elected unopposed from the Asia-Pacific Group and later elected by the General Assembly with 184 out of 192 valid votes polled for a two-year term on the UNSC, which started in January 2021.
New Delhi’s most recent UNSC stints in 1991-92 and 2011-12 offer little value for discharging its duties at the Council for two reasons. India inherits a different global order now that it sits at the horse-shoe table and possesses a distinctive self-interest and self-confidence, which it lacked earlier. Neither the 1990s nor the early 2010s witnessed such acrimonious polarization of permanent members or were grappling with the rise of China and its international ramifications. On both occasions, India’s global aspirations were still unfolding compared to today. While attending to the key business of the Council—i.e. addressing global conflicts—India must ensure a few major factors: preserving its interests, balancing between major powers, raising its profile with Africa, and expanding its diplomatic footprint in newer regions. This article surveys two issues—preserving India’s interests and balancing between major powers—and finds that India has been relatively successful on both fronts during the first six months of its tenure.
While attending to the key business of the Council—i.e. addressing global conflicts—India must ensure a few major factors: preserving its interests, balancing between major powers, raising its profile with Africa, and expanding its diplomatic footprint in newer regions.
UNSC: Opportunities and Challenges
Serving on the UN Security Council, even for two years, opens a vast array of opportunities for any country. First, India gets a voice on most global conflicts and regions, which increases its diplomatic reach. In 2019, 50 percent of Council meetings and 64 percent of its resolutions dealt with Africa alone, a region where New Delhi remains vastly invested. Second, opportunities, such as the monthly presidency and Council committees, provide an opportunity to shape norms. In the past, India utilized its presidency to push through issues such as anti-piracy, which was a less sensitive issue politically and afflicted most nations. This year, India will have the Council presidency in August. Similarly, its membership has brought the chair position of three Council committees, including the Taliban Sanctions Committee, which opens new avenues for engagement with the leading player in Afghanistan. Finally, India can use this term to push the consensus for Council reform and expansion, its permanent UN agenda.
While a position at the UNSC brings opportunities, it also presents challenges. As a key UN organ, the primary responsibility of the Security Council is to maintain international peace and security. Hence, regional and global conflicts become a part of its routine agenda. When India was elected to the Council in June 2020, the 15-member body was already dealing with longstanding issues, such as conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, South Sudan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. Between then and the beginning of India’s stint in January, Mali experienced a coup in August 2020 (followed by another one in May 2021) and Ethiopia’s Tigray region flared up with ethnic violence in November. Since January 2021, the Council agenda has expanded to include the Myanmar coup and Hamas-Israel conflict. For New Delhi, addressing such volatile situations means taking sides between warring actors, both within the state and at the regional/global level, and keeping an eye on India’s interests while upholding the rights to life, liberty, and self-determination of the targeted populations. In each case, India has shown it prefers political solutions over any military intervention (termed Responsibility to Protect by the UN) in situations of both human rights violations and conflicts.
Preserving India’s Interests
With its expanding commercial, energy, and diplomatic footprint, India has to tread cautiously to not harm its own interests by alienating its key partners. While voicing opinions over the situation in Yemen, New Delhi must heed to its partners, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Similarly, in taking a position on Syria, India needs to balance between major powers. On the Israel-Palestine issue, New Delhi has to keep in mind its ties with the United States and Israel on the one hand and Muslim sensibilities at home along with energy dependence on the Middle East on the other. For other conflict situations in Asia and Africa, accommodating the sensibilities of Non-Aligned Movement countries, whose bloc support is essential for its diplomatic heft in the UN General Assembly, is crucial.
These constraints and attitudes are reflected in India’s responses to Myanmar coup at the Council, for instance. On Myanmar, where the current conflict has claimed about 700 lives, India has clearly avoided alienating the Tatmadaw military junta in its Council pronouncements. Compared to the unvarnished calling out of the military in statements of other permanent and elected members of the western bloc, India’s response remains tepid and anodyne. For example, the United States suggested a collective arms embargo and economic sanctions against the “military’s campaign of repression,” while France (as a part of the European Union) has already applied sanctions and called for the “restoration of the legitimate civilian government.” Even elected member Estonia minced no words in condemning the “military’s lethal force and systematic attacks against peaceful demonstrators.” While India condemned the violence, called for an immediate release of detained political leaders, and stated that “there should be no falling back on the path to democracy in Myanmar,” it did not directly mention the military. Along with Russia, China, and Vietnam (elected member), India emphasized greater engagement to resolve the issue peacefully without further bloodshed—a non-coercive position held by all four countries that Human Rights Watch and other organizations condemned.
Regardless of such public condemnation, India’s choices are limited in Myanmar. India shares a 1,021 mile-long porous border with Myanmar and Burmese citizens are allowed to enter up to 10 miles into Indian territory for trade purposes. Beyond shared interests like border management and tackling insurgents on both sides, India’s engagement with the junta remains limited. India is not a prominent arms supplier like Russia and China, whose arms account for a combined 67 percent of Tatmadaw’s inventory. India also does not share the same political ties with the junta as Beijing does, which has often helped military-owned firms with sanction busting. By publicly denouncing the Tatmadaw, New Delhi fears it may further push it towards China, which can be a blow to India’s “Act East” policy. India has already faced the alienation of its neighbors Sri Lanka and Nepal due to their pro-China tilt and fears losing another of its neighbors, and these realities have driven India to walk a tight rope between the push for democracy restoration and managing its security and political interests in the Myanmar case, within the Council and without.
Given the situation in the region, India often finds itself needing to balance its security concerns with its commitment to supporting democratically elected governments. Most recently, while confirming their first meeting with the Indian delegation, the Taliban stated that “we have reservations about India’s role in Afghanistan, as they have been supporting [democratically-elected] Afghan government.” In the same comment, they made a veiled threat that “Pakistan is a very important country for Afghans… and we will never forget it,” in response to India’s request to stop supporting anti-India militants. Hence, even when its partners, like the United States, want New Delhi to be vocal in supporting democratic governments at the Council, there are huge associated costs for India in its contiguous region, which leads it to balance between security interests and principled positions. It may appear that India’s support for the democratically elected government in Myanmar was lukewarm compared to other members; however, New Delhi’s act to push until it does not have a spillover on its border and its Act East policy is a relatively successful act to walk the middle path. Nevertheless, in the particular case of Myanmar, this should not prevent New Delhi from using all the leverage it has for an early restoration of democratic apparatus.
For a country like India, whose diplomatic and commercial stakes are spreading into various regions, it has to be mindful of multiple concerns before opining and adjudicating on global conflicts.
On most Council issues, the five permanent members (P5) are polarized between the P3 (United States, United Kingdom, and France) and the P2 (Russia and China). The confrontation is most acute between Washington and Moscow. Here, New Delhi is caught between a historical partnership with Russia and an emerging partnership with the United States. Moscow has been a constant source of weapons and a veto provider at the Council against Pakistan’s offensives in the past. Indian policymakers are not inclined to upset Moscow given New Delhi’s continued reliance on Russian weapons and a hankering for a multipolar world. However, India will have to square its emerging proximity with the United States and Western allies with the past. Two particular instances—Ukraine and Belarus—tested India’s balancing skills at the United Nations.
As the seventh anniversary of the Crimea conflict approached, Estonia organized an informal meeting on Crimea along with the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and other European countries. Among all the interventions, India’s was the shortest. Apart from advocating for a “peaceful dialogue for a lasting solution acceptable to all concerned,” the Indian representative did not say anything that would offend Russia. However, unlike the Chinese representative, who cast doubts on the authenticity of the Crimean debriefers invited by Estonia and EU members, India did not openly side with Moscow in delegitimizing the entire process. In response, when the Russian mission organized its own informal meeting, India added that issues are only taken by the Council if they have ramifications for international peace and security, while other should be discussed in “bilateral or plurilateral format,” a position that closely resembles its own in Kashmir, where it prefers solutions through dialogue between India and Pakistan while eschewing any internationalization of the issue. On Belarus too, India’s line was predictable: “today’s theme [Belarus] is not on the agenda of the Security Council or may affect international peace and security.” India is firmly against the use of these informal meetings (known as Arria-formula meetings) by individual states to discuss situations that are not on the Council agenda. In a relatively successful balancing act, India reiterates its support for democratic and humanitarian principles violated in each of these situations without clearly naming and shaming Russia or denying Moscow’s political interests in its sphere of influence.
Serving on the UN Security Council brings both opportunities and challenges. For a country like India, whose diplomatic and commercial stakes are spreading into various regions, it has to be mindful of multiple concerns before opining and adjudicating on global conflicts. By balancing between its interests and principles as well as between major powers, India has been relatively successful in the first six months of its term.
Image 1: Angela Weiss via Getty Images
Image 2: Bloomberg via Getty Images