Two days prior to India’s eighth successful bid as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), it registered 20 casualties at the hands of China’s People’s Liberation Army at the Himalayan frontier, resulting in gory scenes both neighbors had not witnessed since 1967. Beyond spilling blood at borders, Beijing has cautiously poked holes into India’s neighborhood policy in order to put New Delhi on the defensive in its own backyard. China wants to show India its place in Asia, which in turn has increased the clamor at home to be more hawkish against Beijing. India’s democratic partners, such as Australia, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, among others, have collective economic and military stakes in the Indian Ocean region. These partners, with whom China has opened multiple fronts, would naturally seek Indian alignment in facing renewed Chinese belligerence, including at the United Nations.
On a council that is usually divided between western permanent members, P3 (United States, United Kingdom, and France) and non-western permanent members, P2 (Russia and China), India’s position on issues has mainly adhered to the latter camp at both the Security Council and the General Assembly. This has naturally disappointed many in the West who have questioned India’s leadership credentials.
New Delhi should seize its upcoming opportunity as a non-permanent member to deliver two crucial messages—one to the West that it can be a responsible power in upholding a rules-based order (without upsetting its ties with Russia) and another to China that it can stand up to Beijing if need be. As India seeks a permanent position on the UNSC, both signals are vital to bolster its leadership credentials as a responsible and independent power in the eyes of the P3. However, tilting towards the P3 would require walking a tense tightrope at the UNSC by employing distinct strategies against each P2 state in order to maintain existing ties with Russia while simultaneously standing up to China.
New Delhi should seize its upcoming opportunity as a non-permanent member to deliver two crucial messages—one to the West that it can be a responsible power in upholding a rules-based order (without upsetting its ties with Russia) and another to China that it can stand up to Beijing if need be.
India at the UN
Despite increasing alignment with the United States and the West post-2000, New Delhi has not entirely embraced the former’s agenda at the UN. For one, India does not share some of these states’ alacrity to export democracy to states ruled by autocrats. It wants the major powers to find political solutions instead of resorting to military interventions. Second, given Muslim sensibilities at home and its dependency on Middle Eastern oil supplies, India continues to tilt towards the Arab world on the Israel-Palestine issue. Third, it does not want to upset its longstanding defense ties with Russia, which has stood with New Delhi through thick and thin, on issues that divide Moscow and Washington. Normally, India either abstains from voting or sides with Russia. Finally, while permanent members prefer issues to be dealt with at the Council level, India prefers that issues be dealt with at the General Assembly level, where it can mobilize votes and assert its leadership.
These positions bring India’s voting record at the UNGA and UNSC in alignment with the P2 and at odds with the P3. Some of these issues are strategic and involve India’s self-interest, issues for which it cannot shift gears immediately. Those in Washington, London, and Paris clamoring for India to become more responsible sometimes disregard India’s aforementioned domestic compulsions and global aspirations that compel it to vote against the interests of the P3.
P3 vs. Russia
The West, particularly the United States, wants New Delhi to put its weight behind human rights situations, the cause of Israel, countering Iran, and other issues of western interest, some of which conflict with Russia. Nevertheless, India cannot entirely discard its time-tested ties with Russia, nor can it immediately abandon its Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and G77 constituencies that fear military interventions from the P3. If Washington asked India to sign-off on its next intervention in Venezuela, for instance, which is increasingly becoming a theater of US-Russia rivalry, it would likely be disappointed. Despite New Delhi’s desire to avoid a political quagmire in such situations, it should stand up in cases of humanitarian needs, short of perilous interventions, even if it means disappointing Moscow in some cases.
For example, India should not join any partisan resolution regarding the Assad regime in Syria given the high stakes in a multi-stakeholder situation. It should still support the UNSC motion regarding the number of crossings needed by UN agencies to bring aid within Syria. Even though both Moscow and Damascus perceive restricting aid as the shortcut to clinching victory against the rebels in the Northwest, India should assess the situation objectively and act accordingly, demonstrating to the the P3 and other western countries that they can rely on India in egregious non-political situations. Such an attempt would constitute a first step towards shoring up support from reluctant quarters in the United States and other western capitals for India’s bid for a permanent seat. The diplomatic challenge for Indian decision makers at the UNSC would be determining red lines in such cases.
Of course, such an approach would be deemed by detractors as “a bit here, a bit there,” but it seems to be the only realistic solution for now. Those advising otherwise need to remain cautious that securing a permanent seat requires more than enjoying the confidence of the global south. India needs to allay the pre-existing fears of its western counterparts by emphasizing that extending support for India’s permanent bid will not introduce another irresponsible player to the Council.
P3 vs. China
In the past two decades, New Delhi has unintentionally aligned with Beijing at the UN—partly because Russia is a common denominator and partly because both want to champion the same constituency of the developing world. Nevertheless, not all agreements are driven by a common external factors; at times, India has tried accommodate Chinese sensibilities under the assumption that the latter will maintain peaceful Himalayan frontiers. However, this strategy has not borne out in recent years, as demonstrated by crises in Doklam in 2017 and Pangong Tso and Galwan in 2020. Moreover, China has assured continuous and open support to India’s rival, Pakistan, which contradicts Indian interests at the Council.
Both permanent and non-permanent members seek to hold China accountable for COVID-19, new security laws in Hong Kong, and its expansionist attitude towards India, Japan, and its neighbors in Southeast Asia. India should not hesitate to join them. India can also jointly co-sponsor a non-vetoable procedural vote over COVID-19. For example, China constantly acts against the interests of those who recognize Taiwan at the UNSC. India can extend its support to such members the same way China brazenly stands behind Pakistan. Although this might further complicate existing frosty ties and exacerbate an unresolved border situation, given Beijing’s concerted acts against New Delhi’s interests—from border aggression to supporting Pakistan—it would be wise of New Delhi to leverage the non-permanent term to hedge its interests and bolster its leadership credentials.
Both permanent and non-permanent members seek to hold China accountable for COVID-19, new security laws in Hong Kong, and its expansionist attitude towards India, Japan, and its neighbors in Southeast Asia. India should not hesitate to join them.
India has a record for abstentions at the UN, which has resulted in non-permanent terms that end as opportunities lost during which India fails to signal what it stands for. In view of its global aspirations, New Delhi should consciously address each constituency from which it requires future support for its permanent bid. In particular, this term should be used to instill renewed confidence in the P3 that India is a responsible and reliable power, assure Russia that it will not disrupt the existing balance of ties between the two states, and signal to Beijing that India can employ global platforms and act decisively in India’s interest, even if it means acting against Chinese interests at the UN. These moves would constitute a first step towards acquiring the necessary support for a permanent Indian seat at the UNSC.
Image 1: Wikimedia Commons
Image 2: Wikimedia Commons